Centennial of St. Andrew’s Chapel

St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School
June 6, 2014
Katharine Jefferts Schori

Happy birthday, happy anniversary – you are centenarians!  This congregation is celebrating its hundredth anniversary, and even if you don’t join the throng here regularly, you are part of its long history and life in this place.  This community took the name of Andrew a hundred years ago, for reasons that are shrouded in the mists of history, but probably linked to Andrew and his brother Simon Peter being the first two disciples.  

I have a lot of fondness for Andrew.  I became an Episcopalian as a sixth grader in a church named for him.  After leaving the convent school I attended as a child, that congregation was my first lively experience of church as a loving and intimate Christian community.  Before St. Andrew’s, church had been about doing your Sunday duty, in the company of a thousand anonymous strangers.  Many years later, I was ordained a priest on the Feast of Andrew.  And, like Andrew, I’ve spent most of my adult life fishing – first from boats, and now for people, in and around overturned boats in naves like this one.  Andrew and the Swedish saint I’m named for have been among the most important holy heroes on this journey.  Who are yours?

The saintly witnesses who came before us, and the ones we meet walking through life, are human reminders that God is still at work, creating life and more abundant life[1] in us and every part of creation.  God desires our flourishing, that we might live full and abundant lives that help others to flourish.  That starts with knowing that we are beloved, uniquely created and known by name, and called to be part of building a world that looks more like what God intends for all.

Schools and church communities have remarkable opportunities to plant and deepen that knowledge of the abiding, creative love of God.  And when church and school come together, as they have in this place, they can help to shape leaders who will transform the world. 

This chapel may only be a hundred years old, but it carries a much longer story of shaping leaders.  The indigenous peoples who lived here before settlers came understood Sewanee as a holy place to say prayers and discover the divine at work in their lives and the world around them.  That’s what the psalmist is talking about – the heavens and the high places and all the parts of creation declare God’s glory, even if they don’t use words.  This mountain is like the dream of Mount Zion, to which many tribes and peoples stream in to learn the ways toward God’s dream for all humanity and all creation.  Human beings haven’t always done it perfectly – God knows! – yet the yearning for that eternal and abundant life, and the drawing toward it, continue today.  We’re marking a hundred years here, but it is only the latest chapter in a very long story.

The founders of what has become the University of the South saw this mountain as a place to educate their heirs in godly ways.  They may have had a very narrow understanding of what that meant, but God has continued to be at work here.  Our own understanding of what the Reign of God implies continues to grow and expand, in the same way that Andrew and Peter grew in understanding what it meant to follow Jesus and fish for people.

Formal efforts to educate youngsters started up here in 1857 with the laying of a cornerstone (which was destroyed in the war – by Union soldiers), but the collapse of dreams for coal mining (given the carbon rule announced on Monday, that sounds eerily contemporary) and the intervening Civil War meant that it was 1865 before any real work started.  At that point all the original founders were dead, there was no money, no classes had been held and no buildings built.  There was plenty of land, but it was going to revert to the donors if no students were being educated.  Just before default in 1868, a secondary school opened with nine high school students and four teachers, eventually becoming Sewanee (Military) Academy.  A school for the girls in faculty families was started later by the DuBose family, and then the Order of St. Mary began another school for local girls.  In 1904 the Order of the Holy Cross began to teach local boys in what grew into St. Andrew’s.  The educational heritage of all four schools continues in St. Andrew’s-Sewanee.

The history of this chapel begins “in a little upper room” in the monks’ mountaintop farmhouse.  When the congregation of boys and neighbors outgrew the space, they turned a carpenter’s shop into a worship space.  That, too, was soon stretched beyond its limits, but there were no funds to build something larger.  The story goes that a poor woman sent a small sum, with these words:  “I cannot build the chapel, but I send this mite with which to begin the fund, and God will do the rest.”  One of the monks had been sent off to Philadelphia to fill in as a parish interim, and as a result the 1913 Easter offering from St. Mark’s was sent here and provided the core of critically needed funds.

The cornerstone was laid by Bishop William Alexander Guerry of South Carolina in 1913.  Bishop Guerry had long connections up here, serving as chaplain and professor of theology and homiletics at the University of the South.  He is much better known for his fishing work in South Carolina.  He knew something about the kind of fishing Andrew was called to – that post-Resurrection haul that was too big and scary for the fishermen to land, the one that started to tear their nets and make them afraid of sinking. 

Guerry had a broad and generous understanding of what Christian community means:  “We should strive for unity, not uniformity.  Uniformity is mechanical, barren, unfruitful, and unprofitable.  Unity is organic, living, and capable of endless growth.  If we are to be truly catholic, as Christ himself is catholic, then we must have a church broad enough to embrace within its communion every living human soul.”[2]  The year after he laid the cornerstone of this place, he proposed that his diocese elect a suffragan bishop for ministry with African-Americans, to ensure that South Carolina might be that kind of broadly inclusive community.  He didn’t prevail, and the fear of a haul like Andrew’s produced even more profound segregation in the Church that continued to deepen for decades.

In 1928 Guerry was murdered by one of his priests who then shot himself.  The man was still furious about that dream of an enormous haul of fish, and accused the bishop of trying to “root out the principle of white supremacy in the South.”  Guerry the martyr is part of the foundation of this place.  That godly word of the fundamental dignity and equality of all human beings is very near you, it’s been seeping into your heart and emerging on your lips if you’ve spent time in this place.  The word of God is always at work in ways and places and times we little suspect. 

The gospel says that Andrew’s journey of faith, his willingness to let go of old ways and try Jesus’ way of fishing happened in the blink of an eye, that he and Simon left their nets “immediately,” and so did James and John.  Methinks the gospel writer doth protest too much.  Very few of us do anything quite that quickly, unless out of youthful, perhaps rash, enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm means being filled with God.  Pray that St. Andrew’s-Sewanee continues to enthuse people here, young and old, and fill us all with enough sheer holy boldness to change the world.  Lord, teach us to fish with your abandon, and fill our nets far beyond our puny expectations.   

If we can do that, St. Andrew’s–Sewanee will still be here in a hundred years, forming leaders who will change the world.

[1] or as the United Church of Christ puts it, that God is still speaking