St. Mark’s Episcopal Church celebrates 150 years

St. Mark’s Episcopal on Thomas Street in downtown Charleston.

As the Civil War drew to a close, many black worshippers were left out in the cold. They were no longer welcome in the balconies of many white churches. Some chose to organize independent religious institutions and exercise their autonomy.

As a result black churches — Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, AME — began to appear in the Lowcountry landscape. One of those churches, founded 150 years ago, was St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Thomas Street downtown. Initially, St. Mark’s mostly served professionals, business owners and other relatively privileged blacks.

Its fortunes would fluctuate along with those of the city, the Episcopal diocese to which it belonged, prevailing attitudes about race and the social-economic status of blacks during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights activism of the 20th century and the modern period.

This weekend, the members of St. Mark’s celebrate this anniversary with two days of events.

At 5 p.m. today, the singing group Lowcountry Voices will offer a free concert at the church, 18 Thomas St. Doors open at 4:15 p.m., and parking is available a block away at Ashley Hall.

Lowcountry Voices, based in North Charleston, is a choir of nearly 70 singers of all ages that will perform the Gospel Mass by Robert Ray. The choir will be led by Roland Carter, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and founder and CEO of MAR-VEL, a publisher specializing in the music of African-American composers.

Carter also will lead renditions of popular songs such as “In Bright Mansions,” “Ride On, Jesus,” “I Want To Die Easy” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Lowcountry Voices music director Nathan L. Nelson also will take the podium to lead the group in performances of traditional gospel tunes.

At the concert, Peter Felder will receive the choir’s 2015 Nelson Mandela Living Legend Award. Felder is a longtime music professor at Allen University and Claflin University, and music coordinator for the 7th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, based in Columbia.

The celebration will continue Sunday with a 10 a.m. Eucharist service led by the Rev. Carl Wright, who served as parish priest in 1992-93. At 5 p.m., the church’s anniversary banquet will be held at the Charleston Marriott Hotel, 170 Lockwood Blvd. Tickets are $50 and available by calling St. Mark’s at (843) 722-0267.

In the beginning, services at St. Mark’s were held at the Orphan’s Chapel on Vanderhorst Street until the church building was established. The cornerstone of the current building was laid on Oct. 26, 1877. Architect Louis J. Barbot used a classical temple design featured by seven other churches in Charleston. In the city, St. Mark’s is the only church built of wood. The building was consecrated on Nov. 7, 1878.

Today, the small congregation is about 70 percent black. It has a new priest, the Rev. Stan McGraw, and an inclusive philosophy: “The mission of Saint Mark’s, an open Episcopal Church that embraces all people without regard to gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, race, or cultural heritage, is to live and grow in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as well as to reach out, serve, teach, and support the parish family and community.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.