The Church of St. Michael and All Angels stands today as a holy place for worship and community service because of the vision and energy of its founder, John Ward Noble.
The city of Anniston was founded and developed following the War Between the States by the Tyler and Noble families who had chosen the site to establish iron works. It became apparent that Grace Church, the first Episcopal Church established in the new community, could not accommodate all the family members and the workers who came primarily from England to man the mills and shops. John Ward Noble asked permission from the Bishop of Alabama to organize a second parish. This was on June 2, 1887. On St. Michael’s Day of the same year, the Articles of Association for the parish were signed.
The famous architect, William Halsey Wood, who had been a finalist in the contest to design the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, was retained. Ground was broken for the complex of buildings on June 11, 1888. The cornerstone was laid on All Saints’ Day of that year.
On St. Michael’s Day, September 29, 1890, the birthday of the donor, the church was consecrated by the Rt. Reverend Richard Hooker Wilmer, Bishop of Alabama, as a gift to the people of Anniston and as a memorial to James and Samuel Noble, John’s father and brother who had died in 1888.
Many features of the church, particularly the tower, show the Norman influence of the churches in the Nobles’ native Cornwall, England. In construction of the church buildings, as far as possible, local materials were used. Sandstone from nearby Rocky Hollow was transported to the site on a narrow gauge railroad built specifically for that purpose. Master stone mason Simon Jewell, and another stone mason named Conybear, were brought from England. They shaped and fitted every stone, including those in the wall surrounding the church property.
Oak and long leaf pine were the woods selected for the interior, which was completed primarily by English builders. In the nave ceiling, they reproduced the traditional replica of the ship, the ark, symbolizing the church’s function in our spiritual journey. Working from scaffolding, Bavarian craftsmen carved the crosses and other Christian symbols on the beams, including the angel heads on the ends of the pine hammer beams, which are all facing the altar.
The majestic twelve foot altar of white Carrara marble, and the reredos (meaning, “screen behind an altar”) of brick faced with alabaster were shipped from Italy and England and assembled on the site. The archangels Gabriel and Raphael flank Michael centered above the altar in the reredos’ niches. The reredos is surmounted by seven angels bearing the symbols suggestive of events in our Lord’s life.
These symbols, from left to right, are as follows:
- a Crown of Thorns, representing Christ’s Passion
- a Prayer Book, symbolizing Christ’s use of Prayer
- a Budding Cross, symbolizing the Resurrection
- a Scroll, symbolizing Prophecy Fulfilled
- a Palm, symbolizing Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem
- a Cross, symbolizing His Crucifixion
- a Wreath, symbolizing His victory over temptation and death
Hand carved angels grace the oak screen which joins the reredos on either side forming an ambulatory behind the altar.
Also constructed of native oak are the pews in the chancel and nave with their trefoil mountings symbolizing the Trinity. The floor of the chancel and sanctuary is Alabama marble but the tiles used in the nave and cloisters were imported from England.
Few changes have been made in the church’s interior, although some diversion of function has occurred where the small chapel is located. The narthex screen was added in the 1950’s to form an energy conserving vestibule. In the narthex are displayed items of interest, such as John Ward Noble’s portrait and an early altar frontal. In the narthex is the window of “St. Micheal the Archangel” (pictured below). The stained glass windows were added as memorials after the church was finished, and follow a plan revealing the important events in the life of Christ as recorded in the Gospels. On the east side of the church, the subjects cover the childhood of our Lord:
- “The Annunciation”
- “The Madonna and Child”
- “The Epiphany”
- “The Presentation in the Temple”
- “The Flight into Egypt”
- “Christ Among the Doctors”
The back wall of the church is blank, symbolic of the eighteen years of no knowledge of the life of our Lord. On the west side of the church the subjects are taken from our Lord’s ministry. They are:
- “The Baptism”
- “The Transfiguration”
- “The Entry into Jerusalem”
- “The Last Supper”
- “The Crucifixion”
- “The Resurrection”
- “The Ascension”
In the chancel are windows depicting
- “The Pentecost”
- “Christ Blessing the Children”
- “St. Catherine”
All the windows, except the first two on the east side, were made by J. and R. Lamb Company of New York. Highly prized are the Tiffany windows: “Madonna and Child” (right), and the “Rose” window high above the south entry.
Other items of interest to visitors are:
- the pulpit added in 1955
- the lectern with its stately bronze eagle
- the marble baptismal font (left), given in memory of the wife and three small children of the donor and placed near the east door to symbolize entrance into Christ’s church
The imposing ninety-five foot bell tower that rises above this entry houses a case containing flags of the states. Also on display are the processional crosses,. One of the churches treasured crosses is a Coptic cross presented to a former rector, Dr. Earl Ray Hart, by the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. A similar Coptic cross is stored in the treasury of Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.. The original wooden clavier by which the chimes were manually played before they were converted to electrical operation in the 1950’s are on display here. The twelve bells of the peal high in the tower were cast in Baltimore, Maryland by McShane and Company and weigh all together 17,715 pounds, the largest 4,350 and the smallest 275. Each bell is inscribed with the name of a Noble family member and a Bible verse.
The magnificent pipe organ was installed in 1889 by Henry Pilcher and Sons of Louisville, Kentucky. One of the main frames, which support part of the Great windchest, is marked “To C.A. Noble, Anniston, Alabama.” Originally, the instrument was a very large two-manual organ built to English specifications of the highest possible standards. It had mechanical or tracker action throughout, with the wind being furnished by a water motor powered blower in the tower.
The organ served St. Michael’s in its original form until the early 1950’s when it was extensively rebuilt by the Schlicker Organ Company of Buffalo, New York. Mr. Schlicker used parts of an M.P. Moller organ to provide the instrument with electro-pneumatic action and expanded the specification to three manuals. At this time, a new five horsepower blower was installed. In 1982, Mr. William Barger of Barger and Nix Organ Company in Chattanooga, Tennessee, did extensive rebuilding, and a new console with solid state combination action was installed. Because of disastrous water damage from a newly installed sprinkler system, much of the work done in 1982 had to be duplicated in 1986. At this time, additions were made so that St. Michael’s organ is now a first class instrument with nearly 3,000 pipes.
In April of 2011, new, custom-made trumpet pipes were installed by the Barger and Nix Organ Company. The resonators have a new silver finish which matches the tin-lead “spotted metal” alloy which forms the bells at their tops. A new case also houses the rebuild Moller wind chest, new reservoir, and other parts. It is adorned with decorative pieces of wood across the top to match the narthex screen at the back of the nave.
The complex of buildings, joined by cloisters, has served many functions through the years: a residence for the rector, parish school, medical clinic; meeting rooms for various civic groups; East Alabama Hospice; Alabama Shakespeare Festival; and many other dramatic, dance, music and art programs, including the Anniston Civic Chorale which was organized in September 1993. The St. Michael’s Sunday Afternoon Concert Series, which was inaugurated in November 1993, for many years offered concerts featuring local, regional and national artists.
The St. Michael’s Medical Clinic, located across from the main entrance to the church grounds on Eighteenth Street, is a social service program of the church, incorporated in September 1987. In keeping with Christian teachings that we are called to ministry giving to everyone in need, the parishioners of St. Michael’s give of their time, talent and money to the operation and funding of the Clinic. As part of the Clinic’s service, a free medical clinic is offered. Lay members and doctors, who are members of the church, as well as other physicians and volunteers in the community, staff the clinic.
Of special note in the Parish Hall (Lagarde Hall) is the series of lithographs showing the history of Christianity in England. The seventeen in this set were part of a series of visual aids used in England in the nineteenth century.
The church grounds have an interesting variety of trees, especially the horse chestnut in the east garden adjacent to the north administration wing (formerly where the rectors lived.) The seeds for this tree were reputedly brought from the Champs Elysees by an Episcopal chaplain serving Ft. McClellan.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places and selected as a state historical site, St. Michael’s has thousands of visitors annually from all over the world, and is listed in many national tour guides. A Birmingham News editorial states:
“No Alabamian can claim to have seen all the beauty of his state until he has gone out… to see the church which John Ward Noble gave to his city, nor can any person of religious feeling… claim to have experienced all the worship of which his soul is capable until he has stood in St. Michael and All Angels… and felt the beauty and grace of its vaulting interior lifting him Heavenward.”
Other newspapers have spoken of St. Michael’s as “A Bible in Stone” or as a “Legend-filled church” and a “tourist Mecca.”
In the east yard there is a Celtic cross marking the graves of John Ward Noble and his parents, James and Jenifer (Ward) Noble, and his wife, Alwera Sarah Abbott. A simple inscription on the pavement of the cloistered porch at the entrance of the church reminds all who enter that he erected these buildings “to the greater glory of God and for the use and benefit of the community.”