History

Calvary's history was featured on Sacred Spaces, a 2004 documentary produced by local television studio WKNO. Watch for a compelling look at how Calvary came to be in this great city.

 

 


“One cannot think of the life of the Episcopal Church in Tennessee without immediately envisioning the great and continued contribution of Calvary Church in downtown Memphis. From Her very beginning, Calvary parish has been the ecclesiastical catalyst in the growth of the Church in the western part of the state.” John Vander Horst, Bishop, Diocese of Tennessee, 1961-1977

Part of the great westward thrust of The Episcopal Church in America, Calvary Episcopal Church was founded in 1832 by the Reverend Thomas Wright and 10 parishioners. From that original congregation, Calvary’s numbers have increased 100 fold. Calvary is a Memphis landmark, and its sanctuary is the oldest public building in continuous use in the city. Its bell tower dates to 1848, its chancel to 1881. Calvary added its parish hall in 1906 and the education building in 1992. 

Calvary is the mother parish of the Episcopal Church in Memphis and Shelby County, founding five daughter churches, including St. Mary’s Church in 1857, now St. Mary’s Cathedral. 

From its early days of ministry, Calvary has been shaped by its urban location and its faithful and determined leadership and congregation. The twentieth century, in particular, brought a number of strong clergy to the parish, who established vibrant and ongoing outreach activities for residents of Downtown—including the Sunday breakfast for the needy and the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series and accompanying Waffle Shop—and put energy and resources into rehabilitating Calvary’s structures. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 only a short distance from Calvary, the church responded with integrity and compassion. Then-rector the Reverend Robert P. Atkinson and the Calvary parish were among those who played a major part in the healing of the city. 

In the 1970s, as the reputation and vibrancy of Downtown Memphis slid and the city’s population shifted further east, Calvary, too, suffered decline. But in 1978, the Rev. Dr. Douglass Bailey answered the call to serve as rector and began a new era for the church. Under Bailey’s leadership both membership and ministries grew, and Calvary became known for its many outreach and social justice projects: the Calvary Street Ministry, Samaritan Counseling Center, Calvary Place Childcare Center, AIDS Burial Ministry, Integrity-Memphis (the diocesan chapter of Integrity USA), Palm Sunday City Hall procession and Calvary & the Arts Concert Series, among others.

The Rev. Dr. Andrew MacBeth came to Calvary in February 2004, as our 20th rector. During Andy's tenure, Calvary established a vibrant ministry to young adults, reinvigorated its evangelism efforts, including a new and improved website, and created a new outreach ministry, the Hospitality HUB, a partnership with several other downtown churches to offer compassion and assistance to the homeless in our neighborhood. In the year 2007, Calvary celebrated its 175th year of making God's love visible in downtown Memphis.

The Rev. Christopher D. Girata was called as Calvary's 21st rector in July 2012. His optimism and infectious enthusiasm for good work well done engaged Calvary’s desire for a renewed outlook. In short, Chris saw the best that Calvary could be and empowered clergy and parishioners alike to live into their potential. Continuing Calvary’s proud history of community ministry and glorious worship, Chris supported long-standing traditions of excellence in liturgy and music while joyfully promoting new approaches to parish life and outreach. Formation and fellowship ministries grew and thrived. We developed a deliberate new member incorporation process—a year-long program that shepherds newcomers to become engaged parishioners. In addition, Calvary launched three new community ministries, strengthened others, and created the position of community ministries coordinator to support this work.

The Rev. J. Scott Walters came to Calvary in May 2017 as Calvary's 22nd rector. Learn more about Scott.