In The Beginning by Michelle Hines

Beth Bramhall, whose parents, Grover and Mary Godwin, were founding and charter members, was about five years old when Holy Trinity decided to establish the mission church that would become St. Francis. “There wasn’t anything out Lawndale way,” she recalls, “so that’s how it came about. We were all members at Holy Trinity, and they wanted to have a presence elsewhere in town.”

Peter Robinson was hired as an assistant rector at Holy Trinity with the understanding that he would become the new church’s first rector. Just over 100 people attended the first service of the mission church in 1954. Members met at Irving Park School for services while the new church was built. The original portion of the building was ready by Christmas 1956, and construction cost about $52,000. 

“I remember, like others, being in the chairs at Irving Park,” Beth says. As St. Francis grew, everyone pitched in. Parents and older teenagers, including Beth, taught Sunday School. “It was a family.” 

Another charter member, Sandi Banner, was also about five years old when St. Francis was founded. She has loving memories of Peter Robinson and of Jim Schenck, who died in 2020. 

Robinson was “short of stature but mighty in my eyes,” Sandi recalls. “Every Sunday he would ask the children of the congregation a question. His sons, Michael and David, would be the first to raise their hands, and then, almost always, irreverence would ensue, and then the laughter. So much laughter.”

Jim Schenck was her EYC leader. “He was a true Southern Gentleman,” she says. “He always greeted me with a big hug and a ‘Hey, Sweetie.’”

Sandi’s one-time next-door neighbors, Nancy and Blake Clark, were technically the first St. Francis couple to be married, according to Robinson. They were married at Holy Trinity while the original portion of St. Francis was under construction. In the 1970’s, Nancy became the first woman elected to the vestry. She was also the church’s first office volunteer and sang in the choir. 

Nancy vividly remembers one meeting, held in the old parish hall one night in the 1960’s. A few church leaders had been talking to the City of Greensboro about plans for a memorial garden at St. Francis. “One lady said, ‘Well, why would anybody want to be cremated?’ and my husband, Blake Clark, suggested we have a show of hands. And, of course, three-fourths of the people there raised their hands. That was the first discussion we had about the memorial garden. So now, look at it. Isn’t it pretty?”

Another memorable discussion also took place in the 1960’s, Nancy recalls. The night after the historic sit-ins began at Woolworth’s downtown. “Peter Robinson was there. He had been at St. Francis about five years and here he was, a young priest, and they bombarded him with all these questions. We had a very lively discussion; it was a challenge.”

The late Sidney Allen, another charter member, served as junior and senior warden during Robinson’s tenure. Sidney, who died recently, had firsthand knowledge of how the church got its name. His Aunt Lillian had a son, Edgar Francis Engstrum, who was bedridden at a young age by multiple sclerosis. Edgar’s middle name was the inspiration for the new church’s name.

Nancy Clark fills in a few more details of the story. Peter Robinson, the young rector, ministered to Edgar Francis, and they often prayed The Prayer of St. Francis together, she says. Robinson suggested they call the church St. Francis in honor of Edgar and the special prayer. Two other options were also proposed: St. Michael’s and All Angels. Of course, St. Francis was chosen. 

 As Nancy puts it, “It turned out to be just the perfect name for the church.” 

Posted by Mark Hamby at 6:00 AM
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