Before it became an Episcopal cathedral, St. Mary’s was a mission church, organized in 1857 by members of Calvary Episcopal Church on the semi-rural, eastern fringe of Memphis, Tennessee, on a spot now considered to be part of Downtown. It became the cathedral church of the old statewide Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee in 1871 and later the cathedral of the Diocese of West Tennessee with the creation of the three dioceses within Tennessee in 1983. A small wooden Gothic structure was built on a lot located at the eastern edge of the city at Poplar and Orleans. It was the desire of James Otey, the First Bishop of Tennessee, that "free seats" and "openness to all" would be the policy of this church, built as a "house of prayer for all people." St. Mary's Church was officially dedicated on the following Ascension Day (May 13, 1858). Construction of its present English Gothic Revival structure began in 1898 and was completed in 1926.
St. Mary’s “Sisters’ Chapel” was built in the 1880s for the Sisters of St. Mary’s to use as the chapel for St. Mary’s Episcopal School, once housed at this location. This sacred and beautiful chapel provides a perfect space for Children's Chapel, Adult Formation classes and worship services of all kinds.
Constance and her Companions
Constance and Her Companions:Memphis suffered periodic epidemics of yellow fever, a mosquito-borne viral infection, throughout the 19th century. The worst of the epidemics occurred in the summer of 1878, when 5,150 Memphians died. Five years earlier, a group of Episcopal nuns from the recently formed Sisterhood of St. Mary arrived in Memphis to operate the St. Mary's School for Girls, which was relocated to the cathedral site. When the 1878 epidemic struck, a number of priests and nuns (both Protestant and Catholic), doctors, and even the proprietress of a bordello stayed behind to tend to the sick and dying. The Episcopal nuns' superior, Sister Constance, three other Episcopal nuns, and two Episcopal priests are known throughout the Anglican Communion as "Constance and Her Companions" or the "Martyrs of Memphis". Added to the Episcopal Church's Lesser Feasts and Fasts in 1981, their feast day (September 9) commemorates their sacrifices.
- Sister Constance (neé Caroline Louise Darling, b. Medway, Mass., 1846), superior of the work at Memphis, headmistress of St. Mary’s School for Girls.
- Sister Thecla, sacristan of St. Mary’s Cathedral and its school chapel, instructor in music and grammar (English and Latin)
- Sister Ruth, nurse at Trinity Infirmary, New York
- Sister Frances, a newly professed nun given charge of the Church Home orphanage
- The Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons, rector of Grace Episcopal Church, Memphis; former U.S. Army artillery commander, West Point alumnus and professor (Served with classmate Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in Kansas, defense counsel in Custer's 1867 court-martial trial.)
- The Rev. Louis S. Schuyler, newly ordained assistant rector at Parsons' prior parish, Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, Hoboken, New Jersey.
A traditional Anglican prayer memorializes the Martyrs in this way:
We give thee thanks and praise, O God of compassion, for the Heroic witness of Constance and her companions, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and the dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death. Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ...
The high altar of the cathedral, consecrated on Whitsunday 1879, was commissioned by Bishop Quintard to memorialize the Sisters of St. Mary who died. Inscribed on the altar steps are "Alleluia Osanna," Constance's last words. Sister Hughetta (Snowden) survived the plague, and when she died in 1926, her name was added to the steps, replacing the verse, "He feedeth among the lilies." The reredos (altar backdrop) is also a memorial to Sister Hughetta.