The large, ornate chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the nave at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville is original to the 163-year-old building, but the electricity is not.
In 1856, when the building was built, whale oil, which is made from whale blubber, was used to light the chandelier, according to the Rev. Robert Fowler, who came to St. Luke’s in 2015.
“You can imagine what blubber smelled like in an un-air-conditioned building in the 1800s,” Fowler said.
Fowler said St. Luke’s is the “oldest religious building in use in Jacksonville” and the second oldest in the county.
It was added to The Alabama Register of Landmarks & Heritage, which records historical places, in 1976, but did not acquire the $2,000 marker, which the members paid for, until this year.
“The people here are very generous,” Fowler said.
The congregation is even older than the building. They held their first service on June 30, 1844, and will celebrate their 175th anniversary, exactly 175 years later, on Sunday.
Some of the current congregation has attended since childhood, following their families before them. Those who joined later spoke of the welcoming environment.
Stan Easton first stopped by the church in 1990 after an interview at Jacksonville State University, shortly before being ordained as a deacon at his church in Montana.
“I stopped by here, and I was just welcomed with open arms,” Easton said as he sat in the fellowship hall during after-service coffee hour.
He accepted the job at JSU and, at 83 years old, has now been the church deacon at St. Luke’s for 29 years.
Thom Cole first attended St. Luke’s in 1985 after witnessing a fatal incident as a 25-year-old Jacksonville police officer.
The incident scared Cole, who at the time had not attended church since his parents quit making him. After the incident, he decided to visit St. Luke’s, which at the time was across from the police station.
“This is a wonderful church,” Cole said.
Cole said he has seen the church go through a lot in his time there. “We’ve had some really tragic things happen here,” he said.
He added the church has gotten through them together. “This whole church is in lockstep with each other,” Cole said.
Togetherness is a common theme among church members.
“I love the church, and I love the people,” said Brenda Harmon, who has attended St. Luke’s for about 10 years.
Brenda Lindblom, who grew up in the church and moved back to it in 1990, said her favorite part of the church is “community.”
Events such as the weekly coffee hour help foster the community environment.
“We have several excuses to have potlucks,” Easton added. He said the potlucks, which happen about monthly, and events help the people of the church connect with one another.
“Worship is important, but so is food and fellowship,” Easton said.
Daisy Stanley has attended the church since she and her husband, Gary Stanley, moved to the area more than 15 years ago. “This is absolutely the most amazing church family,” she said.
The 76-year-old, who said she is “getting younger everyday,” has lived in several places because her husband was in the U.S. Air Force, but none that she loved more than Austin, Texas.
“I sent him overseas so I wouldn’t have to leave Austin, Texas,” Daisy Stanley said.
Despite her love for Austin, Stanley said she would now choose her church family at St. Luke’s.
Stanley, like many of her fellow churchgoers, spoke highly of Fowler and compared him to a good coach.
“You get somebody that’s a good leader, and that means in football or anything, you don’t want to lose them,” she said.
As the church spoke highly of him, Fowler had a similar sentiment toward his congregation.
“We’ve got good people,” Fowler said.
Fowler grew up in a Methodist church before he married an Episcopalian. They divorced in 2003, and Fowler went to seminary in 2010 at age 50.
“I don’t know if I’d have gone if I stayed married,” Fowler said.
For part of his time before seminary, Fowler said he worked in construction, which is beneficial now when the church needs repairs or renovations.
Fowler said the nave “comfortably seats” 125 people, while the church averages about 75 on a weekly basis.
He added the church has around 175 members, and he would love to pack it out for the anniversary celebration, which is open to the public.
“We’d love to have 175 people here on the 30th,” Fowler said.
The 175th anniversary celebration will commence Sunday at 10:30 a.m. As usual, it will be followed by coffee hour at 11:30 a.m.
“I think it’s amazing that this community has been in existence for 175 years,” Easton said.