What’s in a Name: St. Mark, St. Paul, Otey?

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

In December, the vestry of Otey Memorial Parish petitioned the Diocese of Tennessee to confer upon the parish congregation a new name: the Episcopal Parish of St. Mark and St. Paul on the Mountain. Discussion about the naming of Otey Memorial Parish began in January 2019. The racially charged atmosphere of this past summer prompted the formation of a committee to give careful consideration to questions raised.

James Hervey Otey is the parish’s namesake. “Bishop Otey was a devout churchman,” said Karen Keele, who chaired the committee. Information from the committee’s research, Otey rector Rev. Rob Lamborn, and Otey records flesh out Bishop Otey’s story. Otey traveled widely starting many congregations, was instrumental in establishing the Diocese of Tennessee, and served as both the first bishop of Tennessee and first Chancellor of the University. The first building of the University and first place of worship was Otey Hall. Otey opposed seceding from the Union, but Otey supported slavery and owned from three to 16 slaves.

Also pertinent to investigating the parish’s name is history about buildings and worshippers.

In 1868, the University completed St. Augustine’s Chapel. Soon afterwards the University and local residents recognized the need for a parish church. The church consecrated in 1875 at the site of Sewanee Elementary School served both white and African-American parishioners who held services at different times. The white parishioners called their congregation St. Paul’s-on-the-Mountain. The African-American parishioners called their congregation St. Mark’s. The church provided schooling for both black and white children.

For reasons not entirely clear, according to Lamborn, in 1891 a new parish church was constructed across the street, a more durable, partially stone building. There was nothing to suggest the first church was in poor condition. The plan was for the white parishioners to worship at the new church and the African-American parishioners to worship at the old church. At the vestry’s request, Bishop Quintard, who succeeded Bishop Otey, recommended to the Diocese honoring Otey by changing the name of St. Paul’s to Otey Memorial Parish. The Diocese, instead, approved the name Otey Memorial Church. “The record doesn’t state whether or not this was intentional,” Lamborn said.

Nor do historical records reveal how parishioners from the two congregations felt about the naming or the more segregated worship practice. Soon afterwards, though, the St. Mark’s worshippers began calling themselves St. Paul’s. When the church fell into disrepair, the congregants repurposed salvageable materials and in the 1930s built a new church on Magnolia Avenue. Name: St. Mark’s.

In the 1960s, Otey chose to integrate. “Integration wasn’t 100 percent successful, though,” Keele acknowledges. “Blacks felt welcome at Otey, but they didn’t feel like they had a role.” St. Mark’s continued to serve worshippers until 1968, when the bishop closed the church at the congregation’s request.

The 1971 Otey Centennial Committee pondered the naming “inconsistency” and considered renaming the parish. As recently as 1979, records occasionally refer to Otey as St. Paul’s-on-the Mountain, Lamborn pointed out. Curiously, the St. Paul’s name referenced an entity that no longer existed in any official capacity.

What should Otey be called in 2021, the year of the sesquicentennial? “What it comes down to is how to best serve God,” Lamborn said. Keele noted naming a church after a person from the fairly recent past was unusual. Far more typically churches are named for biblical figures or events. The congregation—the worshippers—are typically known by the name of the church.

“From 1891 to 1962 the black and white congregations were segregated in worship,” Lamborn said. “The name changed before and changing it again would be a way to bring things together…We want to acknowledge and celebrate the history of the African-American and white congregants both.” Double names are not uncommon and usually result when two churches combine.

In addition to recommending the parish name change, the seven-member committee proposed a plaque on the church recognizing the building was dedicated to Bishop Otey, a street-side historical marker telling the story more fully, and changing the name of St. Mark’s Hall to Kennerly Hall honoring the African-American community leaders and educators John and Gertrude Kennerly.

The Diocese will vote on the request to change the parish name to St. Mark and St. Paul on the Mountain on Jan. 23.