A History of St. Thomas
St. Thomas Episcopal Church, founded in 1878, has the distinction of being the first Black Episcopal Church in Chicago, and is celebrating over a century of service in the same community. Our congregation had the audacity and faith to be founded just seven years after the Great Chicago Fire. Our goal is not to be just a strong Black Parish, but a parish that is wholly Christian, reaching out to those in the surrounding community who need to see the manifestation of God’s love through his people.
The Rev. James Thompson, who was the first Priest-In-Charge, in this small congregation, built the first permanent edifice on Dearborn Street between 29th and 30th streets.
The congregation continued to grow and in 1910 under the leadership of the Rev. J.B. Massiah, the congregation purchased a large church at 3801 S. Wabash Ave. for $20,000. The communicant list numbered two thousand.
As the impact of the Great Depression (1929-1933) began to lift, The Rev. William B. Suthern Jr. became Priest-In-Charge in 1933 and subsequently the first rector when parish status was granted. At this time the membership was approximately four hundred. Father Suthern, to date, was the longest serving rector of St. Thomas. Through his dedicated and distinguished leadership, he led St. Thomas to parish status and continued to serve with honor for 23 years until his untimely death. In February 1960, when the Rev. James A. Edden became Rector of Saint Thomas, he immediately addressed the parish to the public housing, which surrounded us for many years. This Parish became involved in assisting young people from these developments. Many were confirmed at Saint Thomas and have gone to college and have become successful citizens.
In 1962, the congregation suffered a shattering loss. The edifice was completely destroyed by fire. An old mansion which had been used as a funeral home, located at 3800 South Michigan Avenue was purchased. The funeral home had a chapel and with few alterations was converted to a rather attractive place of worship.
A rectory and undercroft with a kitchen and dining facilities were also made possible.
In 1973, Bishop Quinten E. Primo, Jr., Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Chicago, pledged $1,000,000 to the Rebuilding Fund of Saint Thomas. The Rev. James A Edden retired in 1974 after also serving as President of the Standing committee and as a member of Bishop and Trustees. In June of 1975, a contract was signed, and in August work began on a new church building. However, it was not until September 1976, with the calling of the Rev. Joseph L.B. Forrester III, as Rector, that Saint Thomas really became alive. Under the guidance of this young, dynamic and enthusiastic leader, new life was infused into the entire congregation and community.
Following the death of the Rev. Joseph L.B. Forrester III, in November of 1986, the Reverend Walter Bryan served as Interim Priest. He served with distinction until January 1, 1990, when the Rev. Martini Shaw was called as Rector of Saint Thomas Church.
Under the leadership of the Rev. Martini Shaw, St. Thomas continued to thrive. His political activity strengthened our relationships in the community, with government and other religious organizations. He was instrumental in the formation of the Renaissance Collaborative which re-opened the historic Wabash Y.M.C.A. As the chairman of its board he led the organization into its grand vision to minister to “the least of these” in the Bronzeville area. His vision for St. Thomas was inclusive of children and young people and went well beyond the wonderful youth programs that were developed during his tenure, to include a magnificent dance ministry.
Because of this passion and his vision, St. Thomas housed a day care facility for several years as well as sponsors a Safe Haven Home which supports foster families. He also put into place many ecumenical relationships with churches of other denominations which remain intact today.
During Saint Thomas’ in-depth search for a rector, Fr. Maurice Charles, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, served as Interim Priest from March 2004 until December 2005. He had the ability as a historian and teacher to apply the history of the Episcopal Church to the present and he provided continuity at a time of great transition and uncertainty
In October of 2005, The Reverend Dr. Fulton L Porter, III accepted the call of Priest-in-Charge and was elected the church’s sixth rector in 2006. God has blessed us with his talents as a physician and a priest. He has magnified our awareness of the Gospel in the crescendo of his dynamic and soul searching sermons. He has sought to bring the church administrative processes into the technological age, eliminate debt, renovate facilities and refocus attention on mission and spiritual growth.
E.C.W. (Episcopal Church Women)
Ernestine Redden Church School
Brotherhood of St. Andrew
Liturgical Dance Ministry
Budget and Finance
The Rector’s Guild
St Martin’s Guild
The Third Table Ministry
St. Thomas Community Development Corp.