History of Social Activism

Grace Church–whose motto emblazoned about the Parish House entrance, “Friendship and Service”–has an inspiring history of social activism.

Early Activism

Under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Herbert Coddington, Rector of Grace Church during the early 20th century, the parish grew its outreach to the sick, poor, and troubled. Coddington ministered to Syracuse’s African-American community in the nearby 15th Ward, which led to the opening of St. Philip’s Church on Almond Street in 1922.

St Phillips Church
St. Philips Episcopal Church on Almond Street, built in 1922. It was designed by architect Justus Scrafford, who also designed the Grace parish house. (Onondaga Historical Association)
David Pendleton Oakerhater

Grace Church, built on the homeland of the Onondaga people, recognizes the complexity of its past association with indigenous people, notably David Pendleton Oakerhater (ca. 1847-1931), a Cheyenne from Oklahoma.  In 1878, Oakerhater was baptized at Grace Church and ordained a deacon there in 1881. After release from a federal prison in Florida, he was brought to Central New York under the sponsorship of Episcopal deacon, Mary Douglass Burnham.  His home parish was St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Paris Hill near Utica. Oakerhater returned to Oklahoma after his ordination and  devoted his life to serving his people and the Episcopal Church. In 1992, Oakerhater was elevated to sainthood. Grace Church is the national shrine to Saint Oakerhater – the first Native American Episcopal saint.

David Pendleton Oakerhater Window.jpg
The Oakerhater memorial windows at Grace, dedicated in 2006. The windows also memorial Marcia Pierce Steele. For a description of all memorial windows at Grace, see the link at the bottom of the page.
A Racially Inclusive Congregation

Rev. Walter N. Welsh, who began at Grace in 1949 and served through the 1970s, led the parish through tumultuous times of racial integration and urban decline. He welcomed the members of the historically black St. Philips Episcopal Church on Almond Street, which was lost to urban renewal and closed in 1957.  The diverse parish that resulted was one of the first fully integrated Episcopal parishes in the country. The spirit of St. Philip’s lives on at Grace today.

Association with Women’s Ordination
Betty Bone Schiess

During the late 1960s, Betty Bone Schiess (1923- 2017) worked with the Syracuse National Organization for Women chapter to reform the Episcopal church. In 1974, she sparked national controversy as a member of the “Philadelphia Eleven,” eleven Episcopal women who were ordained as priests in Philadelphia. It was considered an act of disobedience since the church hierarchy had not yet consented to the ordination of women. She later became an associate rector of Grace.

Social Justice

In the 1960s, Grace led the city’s churches in its commitment to civil rights, and Grace was also a meeting site for the Congresses for Racial Equality. During this same time, the church provided a home to one of the first Head Start programs, and offered training for the Peace Corps and Vista volunteer programs. In recent years, Grace has been active members of the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (A.C.T.S., www.acts-syracuse.org), an interfaith advocacy group that works for social justice in Onondaga County, and has taken a leading role in the movement to end solitary confinement for incarcerated youth in Onondaga County.

As the cause of LGBT equality gained public attention in the latter 20th century, Grace Church served as a welcoming and affirming congregation, especially under the leadership of Father James Taylor in the 1990s. In 2008, Grace Church led the Diocese of Central New York in LGBT activism, participating in the CNY Pride Parade and Festival. That same year, the Rev. Peter Williams, a member of Grace and an openly gay priest, was received into the Episcopal priesthood from the Roman Catholic tradition.

Parishioners and friends at a demonstration at Grace against youth encarceration, 2016. (Church archives)