On April 16 of each year, the Episcopal Church marks the feast day of Peter Williams Cassey and his wife, Annie Besant Cassey. They were among the founders of Trinity Parish (now Trinity Cathedral) in San Jose. Peter became the first person of color ordained in the Episcopal Church west of the Mississippi River.
Peter's Early Years
Peter Williams Cassey was a fourth-generation freed African American. His great-grandfather bought his freedom and founded the first black church in New York, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Peter's grandfather was the first African American Episcopal priest in New York and founder of St. Philip’s in Manhattan. Peter's parents, Joseph and Amy Cassey, were prominent Philadelphia abolitionists who saw to it that Peter received the best classical education available at the time, which included gaining fluency in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Peter arrived in San Francisco in 1853. While working as a barber, he helped organize a community association to protect African Americans and other people of color.
Peter and Annie in San Jose
In the late 1850s, Peter moved to San Jose, where he formed an abolitionist group to help free slaves. He married Annie Besant, who also came from a prominent African American family. They helped to found Trinity Parish in 1862. At the same time, they rented the former Bascom School for Girls and established St. Philip's Mission for Colored People and St. Philip’s Academy. In addition to African American children, the academy served children of Mexican and Chinese origin, who likewise were not permitted to attend the public schools. Bishop William Ingram Kip, the first Bishop of California, recognized St. Philip’s as a mission congregation of Trinity Parish and ordained Peter deacon in 1866. The bishop directed Peter to establish Christ Church for Colored People in San Francisco. Annie, who managed St. Philip’s and served as the chief instructor, died in 1875.
Peter's Later Ministry and Legacy
In 1881, Peter was called to St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in New Bern, North Carolina, as the first African American rector in that state. In 1884, he accepted a call to Florida, where he served three parishes in succession. Although he led several congregations, racism in the church prevented his ordination as a priest. Peter died on April 16, 1917, at the age of 86. Bishop Edwin Gardner Weed eulogized Peter, saying, "He was a remarkable teacher . . . He was broad-minded, an omnivorous reader, a clear thinker. His devotion to the Church and his untiring pastoral work brought many into the Church . . . A devout servant of the Lord, a Christian, a true and faithful pastor . . . The poor and the sick will miss him, and the example of his life will lead many to the Cross."
Trinity Cathedral is thankful for the lives and work of modern-day saints Peter Williams Cassey and Annie Besant Cassey.
View the the lessons appointed for use on the Casseys' feast day in Lesser Fasts and Feasts.
Find additional information about the Casseys at the Allies for Freedom website.
The above narrative relies on source material published by Forward Movement.
The Rev. Peter Williams Cassey (no image of Annie presently available)
The Collect for April 16 (beginning), Lesser Fasts & Feasts