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From pets to the priesthood: Pastor leads St. Philip's into new era

The Rev. Stephen Lane wasted little time stealing the hearts of the congregants at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, one of seven original African-American Episcopal churches in the country.

Lane cut the Sunday service from two hours to one, serenaded churchgoers with gospel music and hosted a chicken-waffle celebration for 300 in honor of Shrove Tuesday — unusual for a traditional Episcopal church. And the faithful of St. Philip’s are eating it up.

“Certainly, he is the best thing that has happened in a decade,” said Constance Eve, 86, a longtime member of St. Philip’s. “He’s fired up and he has vision and fresh ideas. He is Caucasian, but I wouldn’t care if he’s lavender. He is a gift to the community.”

Lane, 61, tells his story as he's probably done many times, but on this winter afternoon there’s an undercoating of glee making his words flow. Lane is seated in the study of his parish office. His new gig was unfolding as he always had thought it might, and if ever there were a match that seemed to be made in heaven, it may just be Lane and this church.

Lane, the owner of Steve’s Wonderful World of Pets in Amherst, graduated from Bexley Seabury Seminary in Chicago in 2017. He was selected by the congregation’s search committee to serve as pastor of the church on Fernhill Avenue, a half-block from Erie County Medical Center. It is his first permanent post in the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York, said Bishop R. William Franklin. St. Philip's is one on 11 Episcopal churches in the city. There are 57 in the diocese.

“[Rectors] are chosen by a search committee. They are not appointed. It’s a very important distinction in a Roman-Catholic town,” said Franklin. "This is an historically African-American church that has chosen a Caucasian man to be their leader.

Pastor Stephen Lane is the pastor at St. Philip's Episcopal Church. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Lane was the youngest of four children, the son of Warren Wilson Lane and Virginia Penney Lane. His mother was the sister of Charles Rand Penney, a prominent Lockport art collector and donor to the Burchfield-Penney Art Center. As a child, Lane and his family spent summers at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., meeting up with vacationing relatives.

Lane was 13 when he played the role of Bottomly in “Forty Years On,” a coming-of-age satire staged by the Shaw Festival about post-war American in 1918. Written in 1968 by Alan Bennett, the play needed a young male singer, and Lane filled the part — and then some.

“I learned how to drink at the Shaw Festival,” he said. “That’s how I dealt with life. I was the black sheep. I dropped out of high school at 16. I was a troublemaker who could not follow the rules.”

Lane was 23 when sobriety took hold and he took his father up on a long-standing offer.

“If I went to school, he would support me for four years,” Lane recalled. “I had hit bottom. I lost my job, my house. I was basically living on the street. It was kill myself or try this recovery thing.”

Lane earned a degree in management information systems from the University of Arizona. His involvement in animal sales began in Albuquerque, N.M., where he moved with his wife, whom he married three months after graduation.

“I thought I’d work in a pet store until I found a real job,” he explained, balancing on the back two legs of a chair. “Puppies, cats, ferrets, fish. I’m a fish guy.”

Lane built his business, Steve’s Wonderful World of Pets on Sheridan Drive in Amherst, on the sale of exotic and domestic pets. It was not without controversy, he said.

“All the adverse press about picketers, puppy mills, tattooed fish, rental chicks, actually boosted business,” said Lane. “But at age 40, I began to ask myself why it mattered. The best part of the pet business is people, when I’m talking to some 12-year-old about his fish tank. I had reached the point where I should be turning one store into a chain of stores and I did not want to do that.”

Lane with his famous "rent-a-chick" program at Steve's Wonderful World of Pets in Amherst. Customers could pay $39 and rent two chicks. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Lane, who decided to sell the business, was ordained as a vocational deacon in 2009. His father spent his life as an Episcopal priest and moved his family throughout the country until he became associate priest at Trinity Episcopal Church on Delaware Avenue in the late 60s. Lane, too, worked at Trinity as a deacon when he started a 12-step recovery program at the church.

Founded in in 1861 in a basement on 45 Elm St., St. Philip's was established as the first African-American Episcopal congregation in the city. It expanded in 1921 when it moved the 166 Goodell St., the former home of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

The Rev. Kenneth S. Curry — father of current presiding Bishop Michael Curry (of royal wedding fame) — served as rector from 1956 to 1974 when the Goodell church was razed by urban renewal. The congregation moved to its current location in the Grider Street-Delevan Avenue area, noted Josie Jackson, parish secretary and administrator.

“Under the rectorship of Father Curry, the church grew. We survived as an African American community for more than 150 years,” said Jackson. “Now we’ve been through trials and tribulations. It wasn’t all pretty and sweet. It’s just the way it was.”

The congregation at St. Phillip's numbers approximately 100 families. Membership throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York numbered 8,063  in 2017, as compared with 13,233 in 2007, according to statistics provided by the diocese.

Lane's installation will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday at the church, and it will be officiated by Bishop Franklin, who sees the leadership change as an opportunity.

“St. Philip’s is a vital and resilient parish and he is a vital and resilient priest with a background in business who comes from an old-Buffalo family with deep roots,” said Franklin. “He’s had a long career nationally in the recovery ministry of the Episcopal Church. He has a long experience of being a leader.”

Lane and his wife Ellyn -- who have three grown children living in the area — will soon be moving into the parsonage adjacent to the church. Lane is looking forward to his multicultural ministry and the great opportunity at St. Philip’s.

Congregants, meanwhile, can’t wait to get the party started. They already can feel energy they said Lane brings to his service, particularly to his sermons.

“You take something with you that propels you through the week when you leave the sanctuary,” said Eve. “It’s hard to find Episcopal priests. When you find a gold nugget, you are blessed.”

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