Members of St. Simon’s Episcopal Church since its beginnings 50 years ago, from left, Betty Jo Barnes and Kit Rowe stand at a fountain installed in the center of the church’s columbariam. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)
The Beatles had just made their American debut, the Civil Rights Act was about to be signed into law and in Conyers, a brand new church was taking shape in a bank community room. It was 1964, and St. Simon’s Episcopal Church was being born with the help of six families sent from Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Covington to plant a mission in Conyers.
On Sunday, St. Simon’s Episcopal will celebrate its 50th anniversary with the Rt. Rev. Robert Wright, bishop of Atlanta, leading the morning service. The day begins with the Bishop’s Breakfast with the vestry at 8 a.m., followed by the Bishop’s Forum with parishioners at 8:45, prior to the anniversary worship service in the sanctuary at 10.
Getting ready for this milestone has kept the congregation busy, particularly David Neville, senior warden and head verger for the church. He has been in charge of the operations of the church during this time when it is between priests.
“We gave up our priest for Lent,” Neville jokes.
“Father Dan (Crockett) left during Lent to serve two churches on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. We have used a small group of wonderful supply priests to lead our worship on Sundays. However, we were also without an office administrator, so I have been coordinating all of the operations of the church…
“I have a wonderful vestry, the ruling body of the church, who have helped make the transition smooth, but it has been a huge chore — stressful at times, but spiritually rewarding.”
A member of St. Simon’s for more than 10 years, Neville, as senior warden, is the lay person who leads the governing board of the church. As head verger, he is a lay minister who assists the clergy in the conduct of public worship and other responsibilities, such as parish administration and leadership of the worship committee. Part of his responsibilities included working with church leaders on finding a new priest.
Just as St. Simon’s concludes its anniversary month, the congregation will welcome Jane Mitchell Weston as its new priest. Weston graduated from law school at the University of Kentucky and has an undergraduate degree from Murray State University in Kentucky. She recently graduated from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. Prior to coming to Atlanta, Weston worked as an asbestos attorney in California.
“We interviewed four exceptional candidates for the priest-in-charge position and called Jane Weston,” Neville said. “She is currently Deacon Jane Weston at All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta. She will be ordained to the priesthood at The Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta June 21 and begin her duties at St. Simon’s as priest-in-charge on July 1.”
These are exciting times for the church, which has worked hard to catch up on a number of projects in time for Sundays’ big celebration. Church volunteers have provided the labor and/or funds for painting, repairs inside and out, building a new reinforced concrete retaining wall behind the Sunday School wing, putting a new Celtic cross in the prayer garden, as well as placing new plants and pathways and putting a fountain for the center of the columbarium, to name just a few. A columbarium is a place where ashes of the deceased are placed.
On Sunday, Wright will dedicate and bless a Japanese maple tree in front of the columbarium, which has been donated by two Toastmaster groups who use the parish hall and by the children’s Sunday School group in thanksgiving to their teachers.
The first service of St. Simon’s Episcopal Church was held June 7, 1964, at DeKalb Federal’s community room in Conyers. The Rev. Gordon H. Mann, rector of Good Shepherd, officiated. Under his guidance, along with Archdeacon John L. Womack, the new Episcopal mission was named and began to take shape. Church history states that six families who had been active members of Good Shepherd signed the charter of the new mission. Those first members were the families of David Andersen, Joe Findley Sr., Ned Freeman, Sidney Herring, Rudy Pietz and James W. Smith.
The congregation met in the bank building with Mann using silver vessels borrowed from Mrs. Anderson to celebrate and a small organ belonging to the Humphries family provided music. There were borrowed hymnals and prayer books and Holy Communion was celebrated twice a month with Mann officiating.
By November of that first year, Mr. and Mrs. Harry White had completed construction of a funeral home on Milstead Avenue and invited the church to use the chapel at the facility. In January 1965, the Rt. Rev. Randolph R. Claiborne Jr., bishop of Atlanta, made the first Episcopal visit to the mission and confirmed 12 new Episcopalians.
Shortly thereafter, a gift of land located along Ga. Highway 138, near Pine Log Road, was given to St. Simon’s by John and Demaris Humphries and the estate of Clarence Vaughn Sr., with the stipulation that a portion of the land be used as a park. Church history states that because the small mission church did not have the means to build a park, the vestry offered a large portion of the land to Rockdale County to become what is now Pine Log Park adjacent to the parish.
Under the leadership of John Barnes, chairman of the building committee, the church celebrated groundbreaking for a sanctuary in December 1966. With $17,000 worth of materials on hand, around 15 parish families worked for months to construct the new building. The first worship service in the new sanctuary was held in April 1967. In 1985, St. Simon’s gained parish status.
The congregation continued to grow and by 1990, there was a need for three services to accommodate the growing group. A new worship space was built and was consecrated in October 1991. It continues to serve the congregation today.
By the end of 1999, the worship space was fully completed with stained glass windows, carpet, tile, new pews, a digital organ and a modern sound system.
As the church celebrates its 50th anniversary, the congregation at St. Simon’s Episcopal has expanded to include members who moved here from states all across the U.S. Church history reports it has become a multi-cultural parish and can now boast of Anglicans whose countries of origin range from the continents of Africa to South America to Europe, as well as a strong presence from the Caribbean.
Beth Slaughter Sexton is a freelance writer based in Gwinnett County. Contact her at email@example.com.