Parishioners in church on Sunday, September 4 were treated to a tidbit of intriguing history dating from the founding of St. Peter’s Church.
While Mother Susan was away at the 2016 parish retreat, Father Jerry Drino from the Diocese of El Camino Real filled in. He took as the subject of his sermon Peter Williams Cassey, an interesting and important figure in the early days of the Episcopal Church in California.
Peter Williams Cassey was the first African-American Episcopalian to be ordained west of the Mississippi. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he moved in 1855 to California, where he helped establish a West Coast “underground railroad,” buying slaves and helping them flee to Oregon and beyond. In 1862 he was a founder of St. Philip’s Academy and Mission in San Jose, the region’s first school for children of color.
In 1866 Casey was received as a candidate for ordination by Bishop William Ingraham Kip. In preparation for ordination Cassey studied with a group that included the first two rectors of Trinity Church (now Cathedral) in San Jose, and Father Giles A. Easton, the founding rector of St. Peter’s.
Bishop Kip ordained Cassey as a deacon on September 13, 1866, but wouldn’t ordain him a priest, knowing that even though the Civil War had ended, the Episcopal Church in California was still split between Northern and Southern sympathizers.
Cassey was ordained one day after St. Peter’s second anniversary, and this September marks the 150th anniversary of his ordination.
Cassey went on to be the founding rector of Christ Church Mission in San Francisco, the first African-American Episcopal congregation in California. It evolved into St. Cyprian’s Church and is still going strong.
Cassey left California in the 1880s and served several congregations in South Carolina and Florida.
Cassey’s mentor, our own Father Easton, was a tireless missionary in Civil War-era California. He was born in western New York State in 1829 and ordained in Middleton, Connecticut in 1858. He moved to California in 1862. In addition to starting our parish, Easton founded St. Matthew’s Church in San Mateo and St. Luke’s in San Francisco. He served several other congregations in Santa Cruz, Yolo County, and Berkeley, where he died at the age of 70.
It’s interesting—and inspiring—that our parish, with its strong sense of social justice, was founded by a priest whose commitment to racial equality was unusual for his time. It’s sad to think how pervasive the racial prejudices of a century and a half ago were… and comforting to find an exception to the rule, right here in the history of our spiritual home.