Ever since St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church was founded in the early 1970s, the congregation has been meeting in one parish hall or another — until now.
On Sunday afternoon at 3, church members will celebrate the consecration of a 3,000-square-foot sanctuary specifically designed and built to glorify God and inspire all who enter it. The Very Rev. Morris K. Thompson Jr., bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, will be there to bless it.
Tucked behind a large lawn at 12663 Perkins Road in Baton Rouge, across from Calandro’s Supermarket, the church has for decades resembled a sprawling, residential ranch house. But in recent months it has seen a $200,000 doubling of the “old” parish hall and a major makeover featuring new windows and doors, iron crosses on the roof and soon-to-be installed antique stained glass windows recycled from a Catholic parish in New York.
“This is the first permanent sanctuary we’ve ever had in the 42-year history of the church,” said the Rev. W. Patrick Edwards, St. Margaret’s priest-in-charge for the past three years.
For decades, they’ve been meeting in a low-ceilinged fellowship hall he calls “plain and not very inspiring,” that looks and feels like a school cafeteria.
The new sanctuary, designed by Bill Stephens and built by Chip Blair, of Blair Construction, features large windows that allow natural light to pour in, hanging brass ceiling lamps recycled from a Catholic church sanctuary and exposed wooden beams that frame a peaked ceiling.
Dark wooden walls in front of the podium are adorned with marble shelves and small guardian angels overlook the worship space. Gold-colored, cross-embossed fabric, handmade by members of a Catholic commune in India, will adorn the wall directly behind the altar.
“This is much more conducive for worship,” Edwards said as he walked around the still-empty room last week. Behind the front wall is a smaller worship space Edwards likens to an adoration chapel in a Catholic church. It will feature a comfortable chair for meditation, a shelf of votive candles and a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, a 1061 appearance of Mary to a British noblewoman.
While the Sunday afternoon consecration will be the official blessing of the new sanctuary, they did use it for the Great Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday, Edwards said. The congregation met for the last time in the “old” fellowship-hall sanctuary on Easter Sunday morning. During Sunday’s services, Bishop Thompson will officially “de-commission” the old space as he consecrates the new one.
Blair, the builder, said he is satisfied with how it turned out.
“We’ve been going to church there for about 15 years, and the whole time we’ve been there they’ve talked about doing something nice, something new and upgrading,” Blair said. “It’s nice to finally have it done.”
Renovation and reconciliation
The new sanctuary is only half of what is becoming a larger story of renovation and reconciliation, Edwards said. Last year, the small congregation donated $175,000 for building a “shell” of the new sanctuary but didn’t want to go about $20,000 more into debt for furniture and other accoutrements.
Edwards last year met with the Rev. Mark Holland, rector of St. James Episcopal and dean of the Baton Rouge Convocation, who called the other dozen area parishes together to help “get St. Margaret’s over the finish line,” Holland said. Collectively, the other parishes donated $36,000 and the entire project is debt free.
“This has shown we can think outside the box — they dared to dream and together we all fulfilled that dream,” said Holland, who is the featured preacher at the dedication service. “The worship space is tremendous — it is a huge step forward.
“This is going to be a game changer for that parish,” Holland said. “It will have a huge impact on their lives.”
Holland and Edwards hope that impact comes to fruition in light of how the congregation has grown then declined several times in recent years.
What began in a bar ...
St. Margaret’s was founded by a dozen people meeting in the back of the old Vince’s Bar and Restaurant on March 19, 1972, during Lent, according to the church’s website. The group doubled in size and on Dec. 31, 1973, they signed a charter that officially made St. Margaret’s a congregation of the Episcopal Church.
On Aug. 25, 1974, the first worship service at the current site was held in a temporary classroom building purchased from the Board of Education with the Rev. John G. Allen officiating. By 1977, Bishop James Brown broke ground for the first permanent structure that was dedicated on January 15, 1978.
Since the 1970s, however, theological differences among members and former priests, punctuated most recently by the divisive issues of gay marriage and gay priests, have fractured the congregation more than once, Edwards said.
When discussing the parish’s history he uses a term he calls “Angri-canism,” or being angry and against something or someone in the church.
“The most important part of St. Margaret’s, this project being symptomatic of it, is making a change from not being about ‘against something’ as being about the mission and ministry of the gospel,” Edwards said. “As soon as we got ourselves off politics and got ourselves onto being authentic, we began to prosper.”
The new space will accommodate more than 125 seats and Edwards hopes to fill it as quickly as possible with new and returning members.
“When I first came here there were 40 here — we’ve pretty much doubled in size and the budget has essentially doubled as well,” Edwards said. “Our story now is a story of rebounding from that experience and finding mission that is not against something or against some people — but healing from that and being about ministry of inclusivity that is based on the gospel and not a lot of other things. We all need grace.”