St. John’s rector reflects on 200 years of church | Ithaca
ITHACA, NY – There have been myriad events and social changes since 1822, when St. John’s Episcopal Church became a presence in Ithaca, New York. Welcoming generations is only part of what they have achieved over the past two centuries.
In recent times the church partnered with Loaves and Fishes in 1983 and in recent years has provided a small laundry room in the basement of the church for those in need. This year marks 200 years of helping and lasting change in the community. In this interview, Rector Megan Castellan shares some of her insights and hopes as St. John’s Church continues to connect with more people and new generations in Ithaca.
Ithaca Times: For 200 years, St. John’s Church has been active in the Ithaca community. Talk about what this means to you as the rector of the church. And what are some of the things that stand out for you in his past?
Rector Megan Castellan: Two hundred years is a pretty good story for an American church, but it’s a double-edged sword. It means that this church has offered comfort and support to the community throughout a long history, and has offered much good, but – for us – it also means that this church has been entangled in the historical sins of which our country is guilty: namely chattel slavery and theft of native lands. The history of St. John’s is a microcosm of the history of the whole country. On the one hand, there were many times when the parish was brave in supporting the Cornell sit-ins during the 1960s and the peace movement, and financially supporting black institutions during the civil rights movement. , sponsoring a black parishioner for ordination to the priesthood in 1947 (who later did pioneering work as a college chaplain and activist during California’s AIDS crisis), writing to congressional leaders and urging complete disarmament after the world wars.
At the same time, beside these things, we know that the parish was founded on land given to the first vestrymen by Simon DeWitt, who came to him from the Sullivan campaign, and we know that the proceeds of slavery to the United States was integral in supporting the expansion of the Episcopal Church in this region, which includes us. In my view, this kind of history does not negate the good things we have managed to do, but it does call us to reflect on how we might right our part in historical injustice.
IT: What events have been planned to mark this time over the coming year in St. John’s?
RMC: We are working on a new parish history, this one focusing less on the historical leadership of the clergy, and more on the people who actually did the work! People like Julius Eastman, who got his start in the Boys’ Choir here and became a famous composer, Anna Baker – a 1930s widow who seems to have single-handedly saved the church from bankruptcy, Connie Cook, who sued the bishop in the 1970s for allowing ordained women to serve in the diocese, and Frances Perkins, who was present here when she worked at Cornell after leaving the White House. We are also doing the work I mentioned above – thinking about how we might begin to repair our participation in past injustices and repair those relationships. This work is of course the work of many years, and not just a momentary thing.
IT: Can you say what your hopes will be for you and the members of St. John’s Church in the Ithaca community?
RMC: I hope this deep dive into our history is inspiring and healing! I have spent a good part of the last year reading the minutes of the sacristy, and it has been strangely comforting to read all the times when the sacristy was frustrated or confused or convinced that the church was on the verge of ruin , and yet they survived – it all made me feel better about our chances of getting through the pandemic. If we learn one thing, I hope it is that the church survives both because of the people, and somehow in spite of them too. We just keep trying and doing our best and then trying to correct our mistakes as best we can.