When Chris Hartley accepted a priestship at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in West Anniston, it wasn’t the easiest gig he could have chosen. In fact, said the 45-year-old, it was probably the hardest.
Hartley, who transitioned into his new role in May, will come head-to-head with many of the town’s social and economic hardships while working in an area known for its high poverty rates.
“You don’t have to walk a block from our church to see need,” Hartley said. “We’re up to our eyebrows in it.”
Hartley, a Birmingham native, graduated in early May with a master’s degree in divinity from Sewanee University in Tennessee. Despite being fresh out of seminary school, he hopes to make big changes in the community.
Hartley said he would like to see St. Michael become an integral part of Mayor Vaughn Stewart’s initiative to revitalize parts of West Anniston. Other plans involve programs for addiction recovery, literacy and wellness.
In coordination with local nonprofits such as Interfaith Ministries and The Right Place, he plans to aid the city’s homeless population.
“The resources aren’t readily available for a person like that who needs help,” he said. “I’d like to see that become a reality.”
Hartley also remarked that he would like St. Michael to host fun events and serve as a gathering place for town meetings and neighborhood associations in Ward 3.
“He’s looking at not only reviving the parish, but getting our parish more involved in the community,” said Bryan Cuneo, the church’s senior warden. “It’s kind of hard to be with him and not get excited.”
After being officially ordained in December, Hartley’s title will change from deacon in charge to priest in charge. In two years, he will be eligible for the church’s permanent rector position. Throughout the title changes, his duties will remain much the same, he said.
Religious leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama recommended Hartley for the position while he was still a seminary student — a move which Cuneo said was unusual.
The soon-to-be priest, however, didn’t graduate with a sparse resume. Before deciding what we wanted to do when he grew up, Hartley said jokingly, he worked frequently in the Anniston area as a medical device representative until 2011, when he began seminary school.
Prior to this, Hartley worked four years as a youth leader before becoming a Baptist minister in 1991 at 20 years old. He left the church two years later during a rebellious phase, he said.
It wasn’t until a divorce in 2002 and the sudden death of his brother in 2004 that he reconsidered his stance on religion.
“I had a real self-emptying,” he said. “Those are just real raw experiences, where you don’t feel like you have to be pretentious anymore. You self-actualize.”
A year later he married his current wife, Allison, who introduced him to the Episcopal denomination.
“The moment I walked into an Episcopal church, I knew I had found that which I didn’t even know I was missing,” he said.
Hartley, who double-majored in history and divinity while attending undergraduate school at Samford University, characterized himself as a bit of “history nerd.” He said that aspects of the Episcopal worship style can be traced back to the first century.
Guice Potter, a longtime member at St. Michael, said that Hartley now works in a building that’s nearly 130 years old. Much of the church’s original 19th-century architecture is still intact, including wooden pews, stained-glass windows and several marble angels.
As a nationally registered landmark, Saint Michael doubles as a museum. Hartley said that maintaining the church’s historic features is a top priority. With the expense of upkeep, however, he said that some worry the church will eventually become a museum only.
“I think that would be a shame,” Hartley said. “These walls are bathed in prayer, since 1888. We need to keep praying here.”
Hartley and his wife live in Anniston with their 7-year-old daughter, Lillie, and their beagle, Fenway.