“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.
The long struggle to achieve justice, freedom, and peace includes confronting difficult aspects of our past.
At noon on April 4, 2018, Calvary Episcopal Church held a service of “Remembrance and Reconciliation,” in the church, after which Calvary, Rhodes College, and the National Park Service unveiled a historic marker at the site of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s antebellum slave mart. These events were intended to remember the names of those who were sold at the site, to respect the dignity of their humanity, and to facilitate the process of reconciliation and healing in our community and our country.
Between 1854 and 1860, slave traders bought and sold thousands of enslaved people at 87 Adams Street, between Second and Third, just east of an alley behind Calvary Episcopal Church.
Acknowledging the injustice and oppression that occurred on property now owned by the church helps to fulfill both our civic and religious obligations. It is a way of helping to bring about the “more perfect Union” described by the American founders and the “beloved community” envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most important, it is a tiny step toward fulfilling our duty as Christians to help bring about the Kingdom of God.
In 1968, Dr. King came to Memphis to show solidarity with striking sanitation workers, who held signs that said, “I am a Man.” Fifty years later, we stand with the sanitation workers, the enslaved sold behind Calvary Church, and the forgotten men and women in every generation who have aspired to claim their humanity as children of God.
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.