The Church of the Advent’s story begins in 1871, when a small group of planters, investors, and railroad men organized the Elyton Land Company to buy 4,150 acres of raw land and to create an industrial center. The very next year Bishop Richard Hooker Wilmer sent a deacon to establish an Episcopal mission in the new town. Thirty-two-year-old Philip A. Fitts, a Tuscaloosa lawyer and ex-Confederate soldier, arrived to serve congregations in Elyton and Irondale along with the sixteen Episcopalians he reported in Birmingham.
In February of 1872 the Elyton Land Company deeded to the Episcopal Church one quarter of a choice downtown block for five dollars. The company’s largest stockholder, Josiah Morris, was a member of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery, which contributed $400 to help the Advent build its first church. By 1873 a frame church building seating 200 had been constructed facing Sixth Avenue (near the location of the present Rector’s Garden).
Just as the congregation prepared to celebrate admission to the diocese and Fitts’s ordination to the priesthood, they also encountered a financial panic that was sweeping the nation, followed by a devastating cholera epidemic. On the heels of these two calamities came a depression in the struggling city’s economy that lasted six years.
In that first decade, the Church of the Advent had six different rectors (three of whom served a year or less). Undoubtedly this initial period of turnover and vacancy formed a strong tradition of committed laity carrying on the life and leadership of the church. The first measure of long-term stability came with the Rev. Thomas Jefferson Beard, who arrived in 1882 to begin his fourteen-year ministry. Four years after his arrival, in 1886, Birmingham’s economic boom finally came, ushered in by burgeoning pig-iron production and real estate development. Both the city and the Advent flourished.
But the long-awaited prosperity was short-lived, and the city’s economy began to slow again. It limped along until the nationwide depression of 1893, the effects of which lasted until the end of the century. Under Mr. Beard and a committed vestry, however, members of the Advent laid foundations for the new church structure in 1887, and finally in 1893 completed the church in which we worship today.
Certainly, the Advent has been blessed with good leadership. After repeated turnover in the first decade, the church has called rectors who, sustained by strong lay support, have served long tenures, marked by growth and the ability to respond to a changing world. This combination of continuity, commitment to tradition, and clergy leadership has produced new ministries and contributed to the church’s ongoing vitality, from starting a day school in the 1950s to adapting to liturgical changes and to new roles for women in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.
Another essential part of the Advent’s heritage is pastoral care, symbolized by the statue of the compassionate Christ overlooking downtown Birmingham from the church’s 20th Street facade, expressing Christ’s invitation to “come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you” (Matt 11:28).
From the Advent’s earliest days, women of the church have played a central role, contributing energy, dedicated service, and significant funds. This strong tradition of leadership and service has continued over the decades, through horseshows and garden pilgrimages and now in the annual Lenten Lunches that bring hundreds of people to the church throughout Lent and raise thousands of dollars for outreach programs.
The church’s role in the life and development of the city of Birmingham, its sense of commitment to the city center and the needs of all citizens, is a motif spanning decades of church life. For example, skimming the parish handbook for 1929 (before the real onslaught of the Great Depression), we see references to the Advent’s director of social work, whose salary was paid by the Woman’s Auxiliary Guild, and to the “free kindergarten,” to serve needy children living downtown. Today, the Advent sponsors over two dozen local outreach programs and overseas missions.
Strong preaching and teaching also mark our heritage – exemplified by Advent rectors throughout our history and by a host of distinguished guest speakers, particularly during the 100+ year old Lenten Noonday Preaching series.
Long before it became a cathedral the Advent had close ties to the diocese of Alabama. In 1922 Bishop Coadjutor William G. McDowell became the first bishop consecrated at the Advent. Bishop Charles C.J. Carpenter spent two years as Advent rector before beginning his long tenure as McDowell’s successor as bishop. In 1982, under rector and dean Brinkley Morton, the Advent became the cathedral of the diocese.
Subsequent Deans have been Laurence A. Gipson, C. Edward Reeves, Paul F.M. Zahl, John Harris Harper, and Frank F. Limehouse. Andrew C. Pearson, Jr., was instituted as Dean in 2014.
Our church has grown and continues to grow. We grow not only in numbers but also in our walk with that one man, Jesus of Nazareth, who came to redeem us. Adveniat Regnum Tuum – “Thy Kingdom Come” – is emblazoned on our coat of arms. These words, taken from the prayer Christ taught us, remind us that it is God’s hand, not our own, that guides us on this walk into a new millenium.
Two wonderful books about our church’s history, The Strength of Her Towers and How Firm a Foundation, both written by Rebecca Pegues Rogers, can be purchased from the Episcopal Book Store.
John Harris Harper’s superb Witnesses to the Light: An Adventure into God’s Workmanship, Past, Present, and Future, published in 2013, gives a detailed description of the fenestration (and other architectural details) of our church along with a great deal of church history. It is available at JohnHarrisHarper.com and at the Episcopal Book Store.