SUMMERVILLE — Cummins Memorial Theological Seminary, a small school with roots dating back to Reconstruction, keeps a low profile in an old white building off of South Main Street.

But with a new push for accreditation and a small infusion of cash, the seminary and its parent denomination, the Reformed Episcopal Church, hope to train Christian leaders for the next generation.

The seminary announced in January it had raised $100,000 through a year-long capital campaign that included a $50,000 matching grant from an anonymous donor. Part of that money will go into an endowment fund to diversify the school's income, which depends heavily on student tuition. The school also plans to expand its community service programs and leadership institute.

The long-term goal, dubbed Vision 2020, involves getting the seminary accredited through the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. That could help bring fresh faces to the seminary, which currently serves mostly as a night school for people with established professions.

"Accreditation is so vitally important because it will give us a chance to have students who may want to look at ministry as a first vocational option, and then we'll be able to offer federal financial aid, which will allow that to happen," said Tory Liferidge, a pastor at Grace Reformed Episcopal Church in Moncks Corner. He also serves as a development consultant for the seminary.

Cummins is a part of the Reformed Episcopal Church, which has its Southeast Diocese headquarters on the same campus, but classes are open to members of all denominations. It currently has 12 active students.

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Cummins seminary chapel

A small chapel on the campus of Cummins Memorial Theological Seminary and the Diocese of the Southeast of the Reformed Episcopal Church features historic woodwork and natural light. Paul Bowers/Staff

The seminary offers a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Christian Leadership, and a Bachelor of Theology degree. Some students plan to enter pastoral ministry; others seek training to serve as lay leaders in their churches.

"We have one guy who's a dentist, and he's a Baptist and he's already ordained in the Baptist church, but he wants to get training," said John G. Panagiotou, professor of New Testament Greek and liaison to President Julius Barnes.

The seminary was founded by the Rev. Peter Fayssoux Stevens, a former Confederate Army colonel who served as superintendent of The Citadel from 1859 to 1861. He is best known for giving the order to Citadel cadets at Morris Island to fire on the U.S. military transport ship Star of the West in January 1861 — arguably the first shots of the American Civil War, predating the Battle of Fort Sumter by three months.

After fighting on the side of those seeking to uphold slavery, Stevens took his career in a radically different direction. With the help of the Rev. Frank Crawford Ferguson, he began recruiting former enslaved men and their sons to join a new seminary. He became a leader in the then-fledgling Reformed Episcopal Church in the Southeast and formed the seminary in 1876.

Panagiotou and Liferidge said many aspects of Stevens' life story remain a mystery. But whatever prompted his postwar ministry, it was a central event in the founding of their diocese.

"That's the work of the Holy Spirit, and it's all about love," Panagiotou said.

Stevens first taught seminary classes in Orangeburg while working as a mathematics professor at Claflin College, then relocated to the Charleston area. His successor, Bishop Arthur L. Pengelley, moved the seminary to Summerville in 1924. The denomination purchased its current campus, the former home of Pinewood Preparatory School, in 1980.

The student body today is co-ed and still mostly black. Liferidge said the school aims to diversify. 

"How can we become a force for shaping ministry for the 21st century and beyond?" Liferidge said. "We're trying to reshape a narrative for Cummins."

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Front: Diocese of the Southeast of the Reformed Episcopal Church in Summerville

Pastor Tory Liferidge (left) and New Testament Greek Professor John G. Panagiotou stand in front of the headquarters for the Diocese of the Southeast of the Reformed Episcopal Church in Summerville. Cummins Memorial Theological Seminary is in a separate building behind the diocese headquarters. Paul Bowers/Staff

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.