Built in 1936 and renovated in 1950, the St. Mark’s Mission Church was a vital center of spiritual and community life for Sewanee’s African American residents for nearly four decades. In 1936, Sewanee’s white residents erected a segregated Episcopal church specifically for the neighborhood where most of the town’s African American residents lived. Prior to that time, Black Episcopalians worshiped at a deteriorating wooden church that Sewanee’s white residents had left to them in 1891 with the construction of their own Otey Memorial Parish church. In 1962, the parishioners of Otey Parish opened its membership to African Americans, ending the era of formal segregation. St. Mark’s continued offering services until 1968, when it closed. Several years later, the University demolished the building, which had deteriorated from neglect. The exact date of the demolition is unknown.
Starting in 1936, St. Mark’s also served as the one-room schoolhouse for Sewanee’s
Black children through the eighth grade. In 1949–1950, the Sewanee Civic Association,
an organization of the town’s leading white men, renovated and enlarged the building,
and formal instruction moved to a dedicated building nearby, the Kennerly School.
Throughout its history, St. Mark’s Church served as a place for communal gathering, cementing a group of people into the neighborhood we call St. Mark’s. Seminarians and some faculty members at the School of Theology conducted services and supported youth activities. But the church thrived in the midst of Jim Crow segregation and poverty because of the commitment of the residents to their families, neighbors, and community. This space is a symbol of the autonomy of the St. Mark’s community’s as its members reclaimed a “white-created” space as their own.
Not all residents attended this Episcopal church, but many did, and for them the church was a lively and sustaining community center that they miss to this day. “We all got along, we all played together and went to church together,” a former resident recalled.