Opening the hatch on the roof of The Church of St. Michael and All Angels’ bell tower doesn’t reveal an elusive pathway to heaven. It just seems that way.
Getting there is a struggle, a test of fitness and fear of heights. The west Anniston landmark is one of the city’s remarkable churches, built 127 years ago by John Ward Noble as an eternal gift to the foundry men of this postbellum company town. Throughout its four buildings made of Rocky Hollow stone is a labyrinth of hallways, stairways, passageways and nooks that can swallow a visitor whole.
Most Annistonians, even long-time Episcopalians, have never seen all it has to offer.
Rising above it is the 95-foot tower, square, a clock adorning each side. Inside are the 12 famous St. Michael’s bells, each carrying a Noble family member’s name and their favorite Bible passage. Above them is a series of dimly lit platforms and ladders that leads to the hatch. It’s a dirty, grimy, dusty, rarely visited loft filled with pigeon excrement so glorious that it takes your breath away.
Jody Haynie, the sexton at St. Michael’s, shows the way. Inside the locked, ground-floor door are four sets of steps and platforms. The passage is narrow, submarine-like. Seventeen steps lead to the first platform, 24 to the next. You’re halfway up. The wooden stairways are small, as if sturdy and rickety had a child. Nineteen steps later, you’re one stairway away — not to the hatch, but to the bells. That takes another 23.
At this point, a decision looms: Can you climb through the small hole in the roof? It’s half as big as an office ceiling tile, and there’s no ladder. The only way up is to scale a bell, slide butt-first across a support beam and use your arms to dead-lift yourself through the hole.
Two things of note: You’ll be climbing into 100-plus years of dust, and visual glory awaits. Don’t chicken out, and don’t wear your church clothes.
Once inside, my iPhone flashlight shines on a small ladder about 10 feet away that rises into the tower’s final platform, which is darker than the first. On the east side, fitted with two handles and locked shut by a plastic tie-down, is the hatch.
After all this effort, the hatch is remarkably easy to open. The roof itself is low and dangerously slanted, pyramid-like. On the outside, it’s ringed by the tower’s highest carved stones, which create a wall-like barrier for anyone foolish enough to climb outside the hatch.
The easiest (read: safest) method is to nudge the hatch cover onto the roof so that it rests against the wall, then poke your head through the opening. (You’re essentially exposed, from the waist up, 95 feet in the air.) From there, you can see to the north, east and south without fear of plunging to the ground below. The tower’s cross keeps you from looking west. It seems the perfect place for a webcam trained on the mountains to the east.
Oh, and the view?
Rocky Hollow stones and the Sister House
St. Michael’s is one of those Anniston places that isn’t singular in definition. It is a church, a congregation, a neighborhood beacon, an architectural marvel designed by famed 19th-century architect William Halsey Wood, a historic Alabama gem. Building it in the 1880s took ingenuity and back-breaking labor to get the stones harvested from Rocky Hollow to the 18th Street site. The answer: a temporary, small-gauge rail between the quarry and the church, the usual method of transporting Rocky Hollow stone in those days.
I’ve always wondered: What happened to those rails?
Haynie, the sexton, unlocks the door to the administration’s basement, meanders to a back room and points at the ceiling. There they are: repurposed rails used as reinforcement for the first floor.
Haynie then walks outside to the church’s west side, where metal fence posts line the driveway. There they are: repurposed rails used as fence posts.
One can’t help but wonder if that rail also transported material for Grace Episcopal Church, Parker Memorial Baptist and the other Anniston landmarks cast out of Rocky Hollow stone.
Out on the edge of St. Michael’s property, near a street corner and obscured by trees, rest six large stones. A few are irregularly shaped, others have been carved with right angles for construction use. One or two even carry stray marks from a stonemason’s tools. Haynie says they are leftover Rocky Hollow stones from St. Michael’s perimeter wall.
At St. Michael’s Sister House, down in the basement, are hundreds of floor tiles left unused in construction of the church’s nave. The tiles, separated by color, are stored in five old peanut bags, but by whom? Whenever Haynie replaces a broken nave tile, he retreats to the Sister House basement and hand-picks an original.
"Anybody who doesn’t see how special this place is that we live in," Haynie says during the tour, "isn’t paying attention."
Memories of Episcopal students
For decades after St. Michael’s was consecrated in 1890, Episcopal nuns taught and lived at the church. Hence, the Sister House, which today is used for Sunday school classes, a nursery and the Chapel of the Innocents. Carolyn Caffey Knapp, a prominent St. Michael’s member, promotes the Sister House’s role during World War II as one of the church’s foundational moments. With Fort McClellan teeming with Army infantry trainees, the church transformed the Sister House into a USO with a cantina on the first floor. Apartments were arranged on the top floor for married soldiers when their wives visited.
"They stayed there as they were getting ready to ship out," Knapp said. "In some cases, that was the last place they saw their wives."
St. Michael’s Episcopal Day School eventually became the lower division of The Donoho School, Haynie mentions as he unlocks another door on the Sister House’s top floor. It looks like a large, walk-in closet with HVAC ductwork blocking the entrance. We climb over the metal forms and land among remnants of the school.
Desks, large and small.
Students’ shoes and clothes.
A box of EDS uniform hats, white and dusty, emblazoned with the EDS crest.
Toys and hobby horses.
A partially completed social studies workbook belonging to student Leonard Wade. On the cover, written in pencil in a child’s hand, are his signature and address, 1103 Altamont Road, Anniston.
All left behind, untouched, rarely seen.
Phillip Tutor is The Star’s commentary editor.