The Rev. Edward J. “Jay” Mills III is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. (Credit: David Grace)
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St. Paul’s Episcopal Church may not be the oldest church in Kingsport, but it predates Church Circle. Church Circle is the Kingsport landmark designed by railroad engineer William Dunlap and refined by city planner John Nolen as an original part of the 1919 City Plan. St. Paul’s, now located a short distance from Church Circle, was established as St. Paul’s Mission in 1916.
St. Paul’s Mission didn’t have a formal church building, and services were held in lodge rooms of fraternal orders and in moving picture theaters. The church struggled to grow in its early years. Kingsport was re-chartered in 1917 and was a young, industrial town.
In 1919, the church bought property with frontage on Ravine and Watauga streets that included a small house built by the Kingsport Improvement Corp. The house became a rectory and the living room was used as a chapel for the congregation of less than a dozen people.
In the late 1920s, the congregation was strong enough to contribute something to the cost of a new church building, but outside financial help was still needed. When that help was secured, construction began in 1927 and the first service in the new building was held on Easter Sunday 1928, nearly a decade after the site was purchased.
Soon, the end of St. Paul’s Mission and the beginning of St. Paul’s Parish was in sight. The mission became a parish in 1932.
The Parish House was added in 1932, and the fellowship hall, Sunday school rooms and kitchen were added in 1951. St. Paul’s became incorporated under state law in 1966 and its name changed to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Berndt Hall, named for the Rev. Douglas J. Berndt, was completed in 2003.
Nancy Gideon believes she’s the oldest member of the church right now. Gideon grew up on nearby Yadkin Street, in the historic White City neighborhood.
“My parents moved here from New York, and I was born three months later,” Gideon said. “My earliest memory? The church building was much smaller.”
Eleanor Ford also grew up on Yadkin and was baptized at St. Paul’s when she was 2 or 3 months old.
“My earliest, best memory is the young people we met every Sunday night. We were very active and it was the place to be,” she said.
Ford raised three children at the church and was a longtime Sunday school teacher. “It’s just part of who I am,” she said.
According to its vision statement, “St. Paul’s strives to be a lively, friendly, multi-generational church family, welcoming to all and inspired by faith in God to worship together and serve one another and people in need.”
St. Paul’s has a congregation of about 220, many of whom serve others through a variety of outreach programs — Sunday Meals on Wheels, where the congregation cooks and deliver meals to the homebound each Sunday afternoon; Tuesday Meals on Wheels, in which volunteers assist with cooking and delivering meals to the homebound one Tuesday per month as part of the Kingsport Meals on Wheels schedule; the 20-plus year old St. Paul’s Food Pantry, which serves between 50 and 60 families each Wednesday morning and provides bags of food to the homebound once a month; the Oncology Project, where the church serves as a church of the month for the oncology unit at Holston Valley Medical Center; and Tutor Time Assist, which helps struggling students with free tutoring.
Panera Bread and Kroger donate unsold bakery products to the St. Paul’s Food Pantry. Holston Valley Medical Center helps the church host an annual Christmas Day dinner, free for anyone who shows up. The church served 45 people during its first Christmas dinner; last year 480 meals were served.
Members of St. Paul’s congregation also participate in Shepherds Watch at Holston Valley. Shepherds Watch is a program that ensure no patient will die alone. The church is also involved with the Kingsport Community Ministry Center (KCMC) and supports Osman Hope, a Christian-based organization that serves impoverished children in Honduras by providing day shelters for them to attend when they are not in school.
“I don’t think you can ever do enough,” Larrie Hooper said of the congregation’s outreach efforts.
“The congregation has really bought into outreach in a big way,” said rector the Rev. Edward J. “Jay” Mills III.
The St. Paul’s Day School and Kindergarten, which provides early childhood education and care for children ages 2 through kindergarten, is considered another outreach program. Founded in October 1947, the school currently serves about 60 children.
“We do look at the day school as an outreach to the community. We’re the only Episcopal church in Kingsport with a day school,” said St. Paul’s Day School Program Director Glenna Depew.
The day school is open to all children, not just those who are members of St. Paul’s.
“The children we serve in the day school come from different faiths and have a church home already,” Depew said.
“Part of the outreach is scholarships are offered to those children whose parents can’t pay the full tuition,” said member John McKinley.
Ladies of the church are involved in Daughters of the King, an international religious order for women.
“It’s a wonderful fellowship for women, and they’re very supportive of clergy,” Mills said.
Betty Elam, a longtime church member, has been a bit of a trendsetter at St. Paul’s. But she’s not one to blow her own horn, so others pick up the story.
“Betty was first woman to serve on the vestry [the governing board of the church], and she led the first interracial Girl Scout troop. Betty has been a mentor to young people in this church for years,” Depew said.
It’s these “firsts” that Depew believes makes St. Paul’s special.
“It has been a wonderful tradition of heritage. We’ve always been on the cutting edge, pushing forward. The first woman on the vestry. The first day school kindergarten in Kingsport. The first interracial Girl Scout troop. We see what’s coming, work with the people, see what their needs are.”
“We have had women clergy, and we continue to be an open community,” Mills said.
“While maintaining our heritage and who we are,” Depew added.
St. Paul’s offers two services on Sundays. Rite I services are held at 8 a.m. and has a more formal tone; the Rite II service follows at 10:15 a.m. and uses common, everyday language. Both follow the general liturgical structure. Sunday school and Adult Forum are held at 9 a.m., Sundays.
The church’s nave and sanctuary are home to several items of historical importance, including two tablets brought to Kingsport by Eleanor Ford’s father. The tablets were originally installed circa 1580 in the chapel of Longleat House in Bath, England.
Two stained glass windows were purchased by prominent civic leader Col. E.W. Palmer. The window in the back of the nave was installed in honor of his son Billy Palmer, who was killed on Okinawa during World War II.