Out in a rural area of northern Glynn County stands a white frame church, its red doors welcoming all in the shady spot under a grove of trees.
It was in this church that the late Deaconess Anna E. B. Alexander began the Good Shepherd Parochial School as part of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. The school is long since closed, but the church still holds two services a month, and counts among its members descendants of the founding families of the historically African American congregation.
At the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Sept. 24 was set aside as a feast day in her honor. Alexander was the first African American woman ordained to the office of deacon, and spent her life instructing children in the Pennick community, and in Darien at St. Cyprian’s School, reading, writing and Bible lessons.
According to the lectionary for Sept. 24 from the Episcopal Church, Anna Ellison Butler Alexander, was born in 1865 – although other records indicate she was born between 1878 and 1881 – to recently emancipated slaves on the Butler Plantation on St. Simons Island. Her father was once the overseer for Pearce Butler, and he was taught to read Fanny Kemble, who was an English actress and Butler’s wife. Kemble, of course, wrote “Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839,” in which she roundly condemned slavery.
Alexander was one of the founders of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Pennick, according to Episcopal Church history, and studied at St. Paul’s Normal School in Lawrenceville, Va. She founded a parochial school at the church in 1902, and was ordained a deacon in 1907.
The current church building, constructed in 1928, stands next to an earlier structure that once served as both the church and school, and the loft where Alexander lived. According to parishioners, Alexander also taught at St. Cyprian’s in Darien as well, and would walk from Brunswick, to Pennick, to Darien, to live out her calling. She didn’t however, spend her entire career there. For a while, she was called away to teach white children.
The fact that these events occurred during the period between 1902 and 1947 is a miracle in and of itself.
According to written Episcopal Church history, Alexander ministered in Pennick for 53 years. In addition to teaching, she worked to make church camps possible for white children in the diocese. The diocese segregated her congregations in 1907, and the African American congregations weren’t invited to another diocesan convention until the year of her death, 1947. The history further states that it was only in the 1950s that a woman was again recognized as a deacon.
Walter Holmes, the senior warden at the church, recalls Alexander, who died in 1947.
“I didn’t go to school here, but she brought books to our house to read,” he said, adding that he didn’t know her well. “I was a little boy. Back then you didn’t talk to adults like kids do now.”
Holmes added that Alexander’s call to teach was driven by her desire for no one to be left behind.
Sam Holmes, Walter’s brother, said Alexander welcomed everyone to her school.
“She didn’t care if you were Baptist, Episcopalian, or whatever, she wanted kids to learn to read and write,” he said.
Alexander’s great-grandnieces, Josephine Wilcox and Lula Mells, have heard stories about her passed down through generations.
Wilcox and Mells’ grandfather was the brother of Alexander’s grandfather.
“She was also a Sunday school teacher,” Wilcox said. “She didn’t feel like the public schools were doing their jobs, so she started a parochial school so children could have a Christian education.”
Mells added that Alexander’s father was educated, and was emancipated right before she was born.
The simple chapel, with its dark wood walls and plain pews, has served the Pennick community for generations. According to Paul Nobles, junior warden at the church, the Alexanders, Nobles, Whites, Holmes and Singletons were among the charter families of the church.
And although services are still held, they occur only twice a month and are conducted by a visiting celebrant, often the Rev. John Butin.
The road to sainthood is a long one, say the parishioners.
Nobles said there was talk several years ago at the state convention of the Episcopal Church about canonizing Alexander, and some of the members of Good Shepherd were there.
“It took all this time for it to get passed,” he said.
Alexander’s life of service and dedication is what lead to her recognition among the saints of the Episcopal Church. All the parishioners said she wore an ensemble reminiscent of what a Catholic nun would wear, never married and dedicated her life to the service of the church.
The propers (prayers) for her feast day state Alexander lived “showing care and love for all whom she met, and represented the best in Christian witness.”
In honor of that well-lived life and sound Christian witness, Good Shepherd Episcopal Church will honor Deaconess Anna Ellison Butler Alexander at 11:30 p.m. Saturday at the church on Pennick Road. The event will feature a church service, followed by tours of the schoolhouse and church, storytellers and refreshments.