The church-hosted ceremony was part of an ongoing celebration of the 230th anniversary of the parish, the oldest Black Episcopal church in the United States. In addition to Pennsylvania Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez, a host of local leaders attended, including U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, state senators and representatives and members of the City Council.
“He is part of all our history,” Gutiérrez told Episcopal News Service. “We need to find a way to honor him not only in Philadelphia but throughout the church, throughout the country – and, I would say, the world. We are just blessed that this is one of the many [ways to] recognize blessed Absalom.”
The Very Rev. Martini Shaw, rector of St. Thomas, told ENS it was “a glorious weekend,” with the renaming ceremony followed the next day by Homecoming Sunday.
Shaw said he had reached out to City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. recommending the renaming to encourage wider recognition for someone who “was very important, not only within the church, but within our nation.”
Born a slave in Delaware, Jones taught himself to read, purchased the freedom of his wife, Mary, and later purchased his own freedom. He became a lay minister at a Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia, where he helped establish the Free African Society to aid in emancipating slaves and caring for those in need. Refusing to worship in a segregated church building, Jones established St. Thomas. At 56, he became the first Black Episcopal priest. His feast day is celebrated on Feb. 13.
Jones also spearheaded the abolitionist movement in Philadelphia and organized the Black community in performing acts of service. During a devastating outbreak of yellow fever in 1793, as many fled the city, Jones and his volunteers aided the sick and dying at great personal risk. He also organized a regiment of Black soldiers to defend the city during the War of 1812.
“I think it’s important to this church; I think it’s important to the Black community that someone of his stature is recognized,” lifelong St. Thomas member Albert Dandridge told NBC 10 News.
St. Thomas has formed a committee with other parishes, the Diocese of Pennsylvania and local leaders to create a permanent monument to Jones in Philadelphia’s central historic district.
“With the renaming of the street and plans underway [for the monument], it is our hope that residents of Philadelphia, tourists to the city and all students may learn more about Jones and the importance he holds in our nation,” Shaw said.