ONE HUNDRED TWENTY YEARS OF FAITHFULNESS
THE HISTORY OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
“FOR I KNOW THE PLANS I HAVE FOR YOU,” DECLARES THE LORD, “PLANS TO PROSPER YOU AND NOT TO HARM YOU, PLANS TO GIVE YOU HOPE AND A FUTURE…” Jeremiah 29:11
On April 18, 1896, three years and two months after the organizing of the newly formed Missionary Jurisdiction of Southern Florida, The Episcopal Church of Saint John the Baptist, Orlando, Florida was established. It was located in a four room frame house from which the partitions were removed, at the northeast corner of Terry and Pine Streets in downtown Orlando.
The Reverend H. W. Greetham a Perpetual Deacon who supported himself by working for the “Old Waterworks” was the “Spiritual Leader.” He instructed persons who had expressed an interest in the church on evenings in their home. On Sundays he conducted services and taught church school.
Father Greetham’s mode of transportation was the bicycle in a day when paved streets and street lights were unknown. His favorite prank was to hide a bag of candy in a pocket and have the children whom he visited search for it. Father Greetham was pulled from his bicycle and beaten one night, reputedly by “city fathers.” who objected to his visits on “the wrong side of the track.” In his later days Father Greetham was stricken with Palsy and was nursed by a young Ira Davis who became a Dr. Ira Davis. Dr. Davis was so impressed with the saintliness of his patient that he was confirmed and became an ardent churchman.
Mrs. Ella Clarke, who was confirmed in the church in 1906 by Bishop William Crane Gray, the first Bishop of the Missionary Jurisdiction of Southern Florida shared vivid memories of Bishop Gray and Father Greetham during a taped interview performed by Lorraine K. Stretcher Harris and the late Katie Wright in 1977. She stated that Reverend Greetham was a deacon but that he was “fatherly” in his ways. She described him as a gentle man who was very saintly. She further stated that he and other lay readers would lead the services and a priest would come to give communion one or two times a month. During this era, services were enriched by the flute playing of Jack Jackson, a barber at the San Juan Hotel in downtown Orlando. Jack was accompanied by his wife Rosa who was the organist.
Soon after the establishment of the church, a school was built on the adjoining property. St. Augustine College, the Episcopal College located in Raleigh, North Carolina provided most of the teachers in this one room school. Among those attending the school were the late George Richardson, the late Mrs. Ella Clarke, Mrs. Laura Brown and much later the late Mrs. Marguerite Rigsbee and Mrs. Mildred Warren. The school was discontinued around 1925. Father Blackett was priest at the time.
Some time after the school was built a church building was moved to the site from Lake Mary, Florida. A few years later a rectory was built. A tennis court was included on its grounds. This was the first tennis court in Orlando for use by the Black population. A portion of the first floor of the rectory also housed the Booker T. Washington Branch (for persons of color) of the County Public Library.
The priests who served St. John the Baptist from its inception until 1955 were: Reverend G.M. Blackett, The Ven. John E. Culmer, The Reverend Morris Bartlett Cochran, The Reverend Lambert Sands, The Reverend Granville Peaks, and The Reverend Charles N. McQueen. The priests usually served two times a month and often did not reside in the city. Dr. C. L. Eccleston, a local Black dentist served for many years as Lay-Reader in the absence of a priest. He conducted services and supervised the instruction which parents gave their children at home. He provided spiritual and financial assistance and took care of the health needs of the parishioners. He maintained a full time dental practice and was involved in all aspects of community life. The lights clustered over the altar in the present sanctuary were purchased by Dr. Eccleston for the church when it was located on Terry Street. They were place in the first sanctuary that was built on this sight in 1963 and when that building was torn down in 1990 and replaced by the present structure, the sanctuary the lights were retained to preserve the memory of Dr. Eccleston.
In 1955 The Reverend John Fred Dickman, Ed.D. became the first full time priest for St. John the Baptist. He soon married and he and his wife resided in the rectory on Terry Street. Father Dickman’s tenure was the beginning of significant growth in the membership.
Father Nelson W. Pinder, D.D. was assigned to St. John’s by Bishop Henry Louttit May 30, 1959. Father Pinder was St. John’s second full time priest and the first full time priest of color. Father Pinder had just completed seminary and was ordained as priest at St. John the Baptist. Soon after his arrival, he married Marian Grant of Jacksonville, Florida and they resided in the rectory on Terry Street. The tennis court was a part of the property and a portion of the first floor of the building remained the Public Library. Later Father Pinder and his family moved to a new rectory purchased by the church on College Hill Road in Lake Mann Estates. During this period their family grew to include two children, Gail and Nelson II.
During the first phase of Father Pinder’s leadership between 1959 and 1962 the Atlanta Life Insurance Building near the church property was purchased. This provided a parish hall, Sunday school rooms and offices. In 1962 a church study indicated that the population was shifting to the Washington Shores area and that few persons “walked” pass the church on Sunday mornings. In 1963 the church acquired the property at the present location, 1000 Bethune Drive and built a new sanctuary. In 1967 the parish hall and education building was added.
In 1969 Father Pinder was transferred to the Diocese, became a Canon and was director of The Awareness Center on Orange Avenue, downtown Orlando. The third priest to serve the church on a full time basis was Father Rupert Taylor. Father Taylor came to the church from New York City. He was originally from Trinidad and had received much of his education in London, England. His tenure lasted three years, from 1969—1972.
In 1972 Bishop Folwell assigned Father Pinder to St. John the Baptist and he served faithfully until his retirement December 31, 1995. It was under the leadership of Fr. Pinder that the vestry set a goal to attain Parish status. From the church’s inception it had retained mission status (partly supported by the diocese). On June 23, 1985 a grand Parish Status Celebration was held. Ernest “Pete” Boyd, Senior Warden, led the church both through reaching parish status and through the building of the present sanctuary built in 1990. Bishop John W. Howe, Bishop of Central Florida led the service of Dedication and Consecration.
Upon the retirement of Reverend Pinder, Father Richard Bowman served as the regular supply priest for the church. He served diligently, performing all of the sacraments that were needed. At the end of 1996, the search committee chaired by Dr. Lorraine K. Harris reported its findings to the Vestry and Reverend Raulston B. Nembhard of Mandeville, Jamaica was called as the fourth full time minister. On May 4, 1997, sixteen months after the retirement of Father Pinder, the Right Reverend John W. Howe, Bishop of Central Florida installed Father Raulston B. Nembhard as Rector of St. John the Baptist. Father Nembhard, his wife, Heather and their two children Dietrich and Nikita were formally welcomed to the church and to the community.
Under the leadership of Reverend Nembhard, the mortgage on the new sanctuary was paid off, the Resurrection Garden was established and the first member was laid to rest there. A new roof was placed on the parish hall and the floor was tiled. After twelve years Reverend Nembhard retired from the Episcopal Church and organized a non-denominational church.
In January 2010, the Senior Warden, A. Lee McElroy and the Vestry called Father Nelson W. Pinder to serve as Interim Rector. Mrs. Miriam Henry was appointed chairman and Dr. Lorraine K. Harris was appointed assistant chairman of the Rector Search Committee.
During this one and a half year period, the Heissler Tracker pipe organ was purchased. As a result of the generosity of members of the congregation as well as the generosity of members of the community, the organ was paid for in six months. On October 31, 2011, The Heissler Tracker pipe organ was dedicated as “The Ernest A. Boyd Memorial Organ,” in honor of the long termed choir director and past Senior Warden, Ernest “Pete” Boyd.
In March 2011, The Reverend Richard Dean Meadows, Jr. was called to serve as the third Rector of St. John the Baptist. Having recently completed seminary, Father Meadow’s tenure began on June 1, 2011, as Deacon-in-Charge. Father Meadows and his wife, Linda Mose Meadows, relocated from Newport News, Virginia. Father Meadows was ordained to the priesthood and installed as the third Rector of The Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist, on December 31, 2011, by The Rt. Rev. Dorsey F. Henderson on behalf of the Diocese of Southern Virginia.
In January 2012, on the recommendation of Father Meadows and the affirmation of the Vestry, Father Pinder was named Rector Emeritus. This honor was bestowed due to his many years of service at St. John. A. Lee McElroy resigned as Senior Warden and Father Meadows appointed Krisita Jackson to serve as Senior Warden.
Father Meadows manifested a passion for the homeless and downtrodden. Often those coming seeking funds were invited into bible study and served lunch. He visited and provided informal bible study for the homeless who gathered at the corners of Central Avenue and Glenn Street (near the statue that the city had placed honoring Fr. Pinder). Early each Thursday morning he provided bible study for the homeless at “Compassionate Corner.” It was during his tenure that St. John the Baptist acolytes made their first visit to The National Acolyte Festival in Washington D.C. Father Meadows resigned from the position of Rector at St. John the Baptist on October 31, 2012.
In November 2012, Father Pinder was called by the Vestry to serve as Supply Priest and then Priest-in-Charge. He served faithfully, and his tenure ended on August 31, 2013. A Service of Thanksgiving was held in his honor on August 18, 2013.
In July 2013, following an abbreviated but prudent search, led by the chairmanship of Dr. Karen A. Clark, The Reverend Jabriel Simmonds Ballentine was affirmed by the Vestry and appointed by Bishop Gregory O. Brewer to serve in the position of Priest-in-Charge. Father Ballentine, with his nine year old son, Omari, moved to Orlando from Miami, Florida. He celebrated his first Eucharist as Priest-in-Charge on September 1, 2013. In November 2013, the Vestry elected Father Ballentine to serve as the next Rector of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist. Father Ballentine was installed as the fourth Rector of The Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist by Bishop Gregory O. Brewer on Sunday, December 8, 2013. Father Ballentine married the former Sonya Scott in July of 2014. A reception was held in the Parish Hall in honor of their marriage on Sunday, August 31, 2014.
Father Ballentine was also a champion of community outreach. Under his leadership, the Pinder Parish Hall was transformed into a Hospitality Institute Job Training site, partnering with Hilton Hotels. This project provided the undeserved community the experience of receiving training for jobs in Hilton’s well-positioned hotels in the Orlando area. In January 2016, St. John the Baptist was designated a member of the national Jubilee Ministry Program, which is a resource for services for underrepresented and under-served members of the community. St. John the Baptist celebrated its 120th Anniversary in 2016 with a six month long celebration, extending from January to June. On April 16, 2016, at a formal celebratory luncheon, 30 parishioners were honored for serving as members of St. John the Baptist for 50 years or more. On the following day, Bishop Gregory O. Brewer presided over a joyous and well-attended Mass of Thanksgiving for 120 years of faithfulness. In June of 2016, Father Ballentine resigned from the position of Rector of the The Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist on the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, Sunday, June 26, 2016.
And, so anew, The Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist embarks again on its mission to effectuate, “The Great Commandment” (Matt. 22:37-39) and “The Great Commission” (Matt. 28:19-20).
The Episcopal Church of Saint John the Baptist, from a humble beginning, enjoys a rich and illustrious history. We are proud to be one of the oldest congregations in The Central Florida Diocese, established just three years afterBishop Gray began his fervent mission of proclaiming the word of God across the Missionary Jurisdiction of Southern Florida. We continue our journey keenly aware of God’s promise through the Prophet Jeremiah:
“In those days when you pray, I will listen. You will find me, if you look for me in earnest.” GOD IS FAITHFUL TO HIS PROMISE. We continue to strive to be faithful to our promise. “To follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom of GOD.
Dr. Lorraine K. Harris, Ed.D.