Edwards and the Macys faced challenging conditions when they began their work among the Creeks. Edwards saw issues like illegitimacy and prostitution among the Creeks as especially problematic, and when he began holding services at a local Indian school, no one attended. But he also believed that the Creeks’ difficulties were owed at least in part to the way their white neighbors treated them. As he observed soon after starting his visits, “[S]ince the Church has undertaken work among these people, much injustice, forced immorality, and other evils have been exposed, and because of this, there seems to be a quiet movement to [scatter the] Indians, by making them move from where they have worked many years. This means that where ever they go, they become…body chattels for white men.”
Soon, however, Edwards and the Macys found a receptive audience among the Indian population. The medical care provided by Robert Macy—treating pellagra, scabies, hookworm, and similar ailments—did much to establish the credibility of the Episcopal Church outreach. Attendance at Edwards’s church services started to increase once he consulted and received the approval of Fred Walker, a leader of the Creek community, and in short order Edwards and members of the Poarch Creeks built a church that also functioned as a school for Creek children, who were excluded from white schools and would not attend black schools.
Robert Macy died less than two years after coming to Atmore, but Edwards and Anna Macy continued to work and build relationships among the Creeks after he passed away. As Roberta McGhee Sells, a Poarch Band elder, recalled, “[E]verybody was so hungry… for religion. And these people were really loving people. So the Indians got real close to them.” Indeed, after completing their first church, St. John’s in the Wilderness, early in 1932, the Creeks built another just a few months later and named it St. Anna’s, in part for the Biblical prophetess but also to honor Anna Macy.
Baptisms took place in a stream near St. Anna’s, a spot Anna Macy described as “a beautiful pool…with natural terraces on the side…surrounded by trees creeping down to the waters [sic] edge.” The first among the Creeks to be baptized was “Chief” Aleck Rolin, who was in his nineties and only days from death. Numerous others followed his lead, with Anna Macy reporting sixteen baptisms in the spring of 1932 and Bishop McDowell confirming twenty-six more during his visit later that year.
The first among the Creeks to be baptized was “Chief” Aleck Rolin, who was in his nineties and only days from death.
By 1944 George C. Merkel, who succeeded Edwards as the Episcopal priest in Atmore, could report that the mission among the Creeks included not only two churches but also “a four-room public school, a building to feed the children their noon-day meal, and a caretaker’s home.” All told, the mission had “a group of about 15 young High School [children], and about the same number of elementary school children, as well as about six or ten of kindergarten age” and “three teachers, kindergarten, elementary and High School, about 35 children in all.” Contributions from Episcopal women’s groups, meanwhile, made it possible for outstanding young people from the Poarch Creeks to attend schools such as St. Mary’s School, Sewanee, and the Patterson School in Lenoir, North Carolina.
With the help of the Episcopal Church, the Poarch Creeks developed a new sense of their history and a deeper awareness of themselves as a people. As Roberta McGhee Sells put it, Episcopalians did “a lot for the Indian folks…. They helped them get where they could go to school. …The whites didn’t want the Indians to get an education ‘cause they didn’t want them to know what they had done to them. If the Episcopal people hadn’t come, I don’t know how long this community would have lasted.” When on August 11, 1984, the United States government made the Poarch Band of Creek Indians the only federally recognized tribe in Alabama, the records of St. Anna’s Episcopal Church were primary sources of genealogical information that confirmed individual membership in the tribe.
In 2009 the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, visited St. Anna’s, and its members told her the story of the Macys, Edwards, and Merkel, and of the difference that the Episcopal Church had made in their history. Tears running down her cheeks, Bishop Jefferts Schori accepted a handmade quilt from the people of St. Anna’s as they told her: “The Episcopal Church saved us as a people. Thank you for coming to us.”
J. Barry Vaughn, an Alabama native, has served Episcopal churches in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania, and he is presently rector of Christ Church Episcopal in Las Vegas, Nevada. The University of Alabama Press will publish his book, Bishops, Bourbons, and Big Mules: A History of the Episcopal Church in Alabama, later this year. He is grateful to Rev. S. Albert Kennington of Fairhope, Alabama, and the late Lee Martin of Atmore, Alabama, for their assistance in researching and writing this article. Joshua D. Rothman, standing editor of the “Southern Religion” department of Alabama Heritage, is professor of history at the University of Alabama and director of the university’s Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South, which sponsors this department.