The city of Oak Ridge was built on quiet farmland during World War II as a brand new, highly secret Army base, a major part of the monumental Manhattan Project that in 1945 helped hasten the end of that long and tragic war. During the summer of 1943, among the first wave of professional people arriving here was Gertrude Gunn, a nurse from Minnesota. While in a Knoxville hospital being treated for an eye infection, she was visited by a Knoxville Priest, Fr. Eugene Hopper, and they talked about holding services in Oak Ridge. She later posted notices in dormitories and about a dozen Episcopalians aided by various clergy from Knoxville started holding Evening Prayer on Sunday afternoons. Their first service was October 3, 1943; held in the Army's interdenominational "Chapel-on-the-Hill". Gertrude wrote about those early days:
"Mr. Hopper read our first service the first part of October 1943. I kept a very careful attendance book from the very first service, which Stephen Davenport later asked for, and which I fear is lost. The attendance was not more than 15 or 18. Mr. Hopper announced that we would have a service every Sunday, winter and summer. As we grew we used to have choir practice at the Caters at 104 W. Newcomb Rd. Sally wasn't too well but she got busy and cut up her own dinner napkins to make communion linen. I hemmed and helped where I could. Seems to me that little John Holt played our hymns. Stella Heinze gave us our first offering plates."
A year after the first service, 31 people signed a petition to become a mission of the Diocese of Tennessee and chose the name St. Stephen's. The first priest, Stephen Davenport, arrived early in 1945, and in 1946 the fast-growing mission began renting space in the old Oak Ridge High School gymnasium as a place of worship. An altar with hangings, communion rail and other furnishings were built by members, set up and taken down and stored every Sunday.
By 1949, it appeared that the "temporary" Army camp would become a permanent community, and when land was made available for purchase by churches, St. Stephen's was the first Protestant denomination to build. Our Crab Orchard stone-covered Nave and Parish Hall was built at a cost of $110,000 with major help from the Diocese! We had raised $10K; they gave us $50K outright, and signed our note for the remaining funds. Groundbreaking took place on May 15, 1950, in the midst of a torrential downpour!
The first Sunday service in the new building was held on Whitsunday, 1951, with Church School classes in the Parish Hall below. What a thrill to be in our own home, not to have to set up an altar, chairs, and bring out all those hymnals, prayer books, and foam rubber kneeling cushions every Sunday!
With the post-war advent of Federal programs to apply nuclear science to peaceful uses such as medicine, industry, and agriculture, the congregation grew quickly and became a self-supporting Parish in 1951. The following year our parish attracted national attention when one of our noted Manhattan Project scientists, Dr. William G. Pollard, was ordained a Deacon. LIFE magazine sent a photographer, and a long profile was written for The New Yorker. Pollard served as Associate Rector here for 37 years until his death in 1989.
Through the 1950s our atypically young congregation was leading the way in the baby boom; the number of children in Church School growing to the point of requiring two parallel Church Schools every Sunday, not only filling the undercroft by spilling over into the kitchen! In the late 1950s, over 60 teachers and helpers had to be recruited to staff the average attendance of 190 of a total of over 300 children enrolled.
In the early 1960s, after a year of intense study of ways to solve the urgent space problem such as starting another church in town, or buying a nearby WWII "E" apartment building, the parish decided to add on a large Church School wing and that was completed in 1962 ($125K).
Over the years a number of improvements and additions have been made including stained glass windows in the Nave and Chapel, a custom built pipe organ, a heating and air-conditioning system, a beautiful Memorial Garden for the interment of ashes of parishioners, as well as comprehensive landscaping of the entire grounds. Two major capital programs were undertaken. One in the early 1990s, the Pollard Project ($100K), completely renovated our Chapel, and provided both Vesting and Altar Sacristies, and renovated staff offices and the parish kitchen. A second in the early 2000s, the Tools for Tomorrow Project ($500K), provided a new covered entrance to the buildings, a handicapped accessible elevator, a much enlarged Pollard Room (Meeting Room/Parish Library), youth rooms, renovated rest rooms, and provided new consolidated offices.
But St. Stephen's Episcopal Church is not the fine facilities and beautiful grounds at 212 North Tulane Avenue, this church is its people - worshipping and serving God by serving all those we meet in our homes and in the different worlds we each live in all week long.
During the early years our focus perforce was primarily on ourselves and survival issues, but soon we were able to be concerned not only with ministries to the family here, but in many outreach ministries to others beyond our doors. For instance, we helped with the planting and building of the Episcopal Church both in nearby Norris (St. Francis) in the 1950s, in Clinton (St. Alban's) in the 1960s and during the 1970s in Rugby (Christ Church). Beginning in the 1950s we started undertaking various outreach projects helping others in our own town and in the world around us. Many of these have been very important in our parish life such as Haiti, ADFAC, Habitat, UNICEF, Ulster, Heifer Intl., Katrina, and our yearly Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter Baskets for local people in need.
Our laity led the fight in the late 1960s to allow women to serve on Vestries in the Diocese of Tennessee. We elected our Grace Holt the first woman Sr. Warden in the State. We were the first parish in the USA to start an Education for Ministry (EFM) class, serving as the pilot group for this program for laity at The University of the South at Sewanne. Several of our members have been elected by the Diocese to serve on Bishop & Council over the years, and a number have provided leadership and service on important Diocesan committees- Hunger Diocesan and National Altar Guild, Division of the Diocese of TN, The Legacy Society, and The Ministry of the Laity.
Our eight Rectors - the Revs. Davenport, McGregor, McIntosh, Reid, Pierce, Hackett, Freeman, and Kallio together with sixteen Associates, Assistants, or Deacons have richly blessed us over the years with spiritual guidance and program leadership. And above all, our thousands of worshippers through the years have been a vibrant worshipping and serving community. We will welcome you to join our warm fellowship and in our programs that offer so many different opportunities to belong, to grow spiritually, and to serve our Lord.