A History of Grace Church
In 1881, Gen. Tyler was visiting Sam Noble in his home one evening. The general said, “I think it is time to build our church and I want it to be of stone like the English churches.”
The first Episcopal service- really the first Christian service of worship in Anniston- was held in the summer of 1874 by the Rev. J.F. Smith of St. Peter’s, Talladega, on the long front porch of the Woodstock Hotel. At that time, Anniston was a new company town, still called Woodstock. It had been envisioned by Samuel Noble of Rome, Georgia, who had large iron ore and timber holdings in the area. Noble had interested Gen. Daniel Tyler and his son, Alfred Lee Tyler, in a joint investment for the manufacture of pig metal and other products of iron ore. The representatives of the Noble and Tyler families signed an agreement forming the Woodstock Iron Company on May 4, 1872. The company imported skilled workmen from England and Sweden to build and operate a blast furnace. Furnace Number 1 was “blown in” on April 13, 1873.
With the advent of a new railroad constructed through the area, the founders opened the town to the public and incorporated it as Anniston in 1883. In a four month period that year, 84 new dwellings were constructed and occupied. The population rose from 1,000 in 1880 to 6,000 in 1884. It was a rapidly growing community planned by engineers for orderly growth. We continue today to benefit from the foresight of the founders. Even with the passage of many years, descendants of the founding families are members of our church today.
The history of the town and Grace Church are inextricably entwined with the same two families providing the leadership for both. Samuel Noble wanted a stone church with interior finished in cedar and brass as in Solomon’s temple. While a young cadet at West Point, General Tyler had admired a church at Highland Falls, New York. He employed George Upjohn, a famous architect of the day, to copy and adapt the design. Several of the Noble and Tyler family members each contributed $5,000 to raise the $50,000 to construct the church building on land donated by the Woodstock Iron Company. The midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve, 1885, was the first service in the newly completed church. The consecration of the church was held on May 19, 1886, during the 55th annual convention of the Diocese of Alabama, held in Anniston, and was properly chronicled in The Daily Hot Blast (forerunner to our present Anniston Star).
As the church grew rapidly and filled to capacity, mission stations were developed. Because of overcrowding, the vestry consented to the establishment of another Episcopal Church- Saint Michael’s and All Angels. This beautiful new edifice was funded by John Ward Noble and consecrated to the glory of God in September of 1890.
A total of 19 men and one woman are listed as having served as rector of Grace Church for various periods of time. Since 1921, the pulpit of Grace Church has been occupied primarily by five men who have shaped the life of the parish. The Reverend James M. Stoney, 21 years, who became Bishop of New Mexico, was succeeded by his brother, William S. Stoney, 13 years who retired to pastor small churches near Saluda, North Carolina. The Reverend Thomas G. Jones gave us 14 years of inspiration from 1973 to 1987, before becoming rector of Trinity Church in Columbus, Georgia. The Reverend Eddie Ard, only here for five years, became rector of Emmanuel Church in Athens, Georgia. The Reverend Robert T. J. Childers, after 13 years, has just accepted a call to be rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. The Reverend Doctor Lee F. Shafer was appointed as Interim Priest in 2008, after The Rev. Childers left for Tennessee. She was called to be our Rector in 2009 and was installed in a glorious “Coronation” on December 3, 2009. The Rev. Dr. Lee F. Shafer served as rector until November 25, 2018, when she was called to Calvary Episcopal Church, Louisville, Kentucky to serve as their rector.
Tom Jones led us, through his example, into participation in the mainstream of community life. The Rev. Jones was instrumental in opening the church facilities for meetings of an interdenominational study group, the hospital- sponsored Diabetic Association Support Group for diabetics and a weekly meeting of the Anniston Ministerial Association. He helped to start the Soup Bowl of Anniston, which opened in 1984 and currently serves thousands of meals each month. In 1987, The Rev. Jones was instrumental in the organization of the area’s hospice program. In the beginning, the nucleus of the project was composed of Grace Church members, many of whom are still active.
Eddie Ard continued Grace Church’s participation in the mainstream of community life. The Rev. Ard upheld the practice of opening the church facilities for use by outside groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Hospice, and the HIV Aids Clinic. Habitat for Humanity, which he helped to establish in Anniston, housed their offices in Grace Church for many years. The Rev. Ard was instrumental in building the All Saints Memorial Garden. He organized the “Amazing Grace” Adult Christian Education Program utilizing the skills and training of Grace Church members. He compiled and directed the printing of the supplemental hymnal; incorporated the Healing service into the Sunday services once a month and installed a speaker system in the church building for the hearing impaired. In 1993, The Rev. Ard was responsible for the beginning of Crossroads bookstore, located in the Sunday School wing.
During The Rev. Ard’s administration, The Rev. Huey Gardner was recruited to Assistant Rector to supervise the youth program and share the ministry of the church. He initiated the purchase of a van because of the increased activity of the youth of the church.
In August of 1995, we welcomed The Rev. Robert Childers to Grace Church. The Rev. Childers continued with the open door policy for community group meetings that was set before him. In 1997, he was instrumental in starting Lobsterfest- our annual fundraiser to benefit Habitat for Humanity. Grace Church also built three homes for Habitat during his time at Grace.
We had many members participate in the Jimmy Carter Work Project in 2003. The Rev. Childers started the Wednesday night service, program and supper, offering a more contemporary setting for the service and a Bible study format for the programs. The suppers are provided by teams and bring back the social warmth many of us remember from our childhood churches. Two Bible study groups started by him have continued to grow- the Tuesday morning group and the Men’s Bible study. Under his leadership in 2001, Grace became home to Pre-School Friends: a pre-school for children of families with low to moderate income. The Rev. Childers also revitalized the Cursillo community of Grace Church.
The Rev. Dr. Lee Shafer led Grace Church to continue and expand the outreach efforts of this parish. During her tenure, Grace started a Beans and Rice Ministry in the fall of 2010 that has flourished. Inspired by Sawyerville Day Camp in West Alabama, The Rev. Dr. Shafer led Grace to begin Foothills Day Camp for Calhoun County children who would not otherwise have a summer day camp experience. This camp began in 2012 and has brought children from all ethnic groups together for a camping experience and has brought youth staff from all over the Diocese as well as a diversity of ethnic and religious backgrounds together. A second objective of the camp is to build bridges among all the socio-economic, racial and religious groups in Calhoun County. The Rev. Dr. Lee F. Shafer served as rector of Grace Church until November 25, 2018.
The Rev. James E. Elliott, Jr. served as Interim Rector at Grace Church from July 7, 2019 – May 31, 2020.
The Rev. Walter LaLonde began serving as rector of Grace Church on June 1, 2020.
Grace Church has been a good steward of its resources. As various parcels of real estate under church control have been liquidated, the funds have been set aside for restricted capital expenditures with the income primarily dedicated to outreach. In 1980, Grace Church initiated the sponsorship of the Church of the Messiah in Heflin, Alabama. Grace Church’s curate, The Rev. Marcus B. Robertson, was designated as the first rector of the new church, and substantial financial assistance has been given from Grace Church to assure a firm foundation for this ministry.
To ensure the functional beauty of the church, a Second Century Campaign was conducted in 1985. The congregation had a desire to preserve for posterity the heritage left us by the Nobles and Tylers. We cherish the beauty of God’s edifice of stone and cedar. This financial campaign was designed to refurbish and rebuild areas the parish house, church and rectory that had seen many years of use. This campaign raised more than $600,000 and has assured the future maintenance of our beautiful and sacred facilities. In 2005, the Vestry authorized spending from the Second Century Fund to make needed improvements and renovations, including new heating and air conditioning and a sprinkler system for the church.
Grace Church is located in an area designated as downtown Anniston. Our property borders our primary community traffic artery- tree lined Quintard Avenue- which was named for one of the early Alabama bishops. Most parishioners are within a 10-15 minute drive to come from home or work to church. We have a vibrant congregation housed in a beautiful historical building where the ebb and flow of community activity can be a significant part of church life.