The "Day of Repentance" started in silence.

More than a dozen Episcopal bishops from around the country yesterday morning slowly walked down the aisle of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in West Philadelphia.

There were no trumpets, no organ, only the sounding of a lone gong.

From the start, this service would be like no other in the history of the two-million-member denomination.

The bishops led more than 500 worshipers in a day of public atonement for the silence of the official church during slavery, segregation and racism over the centuries.

The service began with an unflinching look at the church's past.

People heard how church members in the Continental Congress permitted slaves to be counted merely as three-fifths of a person.

How the Episcopal Church often disallowed African Americans from entering churches to worship.

How the church kept black members from being ordained as priests and, even today, often sends African American priests to depressed or resource-barren areas.

And with this litany, the worshipers responded, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

But what started solemnly at St. Thomas, the nation's oldest black Episcopal church, ended after more than an hour later with a joyful blast of music. With trumpets and organ, people sang out the words of a spiritual often sung during the civil-rights era: "Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me."

That was when the Rev. Jayne Oasin choked up.

The 61-year-old minister, who works at the Episcopal Church Center in New York and helped plan the service, said she is old enough to remember singing that spiritual on marches in Washington, D.C.

She said she felt pride yesterday that her church could face its past. But she said progress on race issues was unfinished business.

"We can't get such a cathartic feeling from today that we think we've done it," Oasin said. "Mission accomplished? No."

At its 2006 general convention, the Episcopal Church voted to "acknowledge its history of participation" in the sin of slavery. Other Protestant denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, have made similar declarations.

Yesterday's service was a public apology. More than half those in the audience were African American, many from as far as Maryland and Massachusetts.

"This is a day I've been praying for," said the Rev. Renee McKenzie-Hayward of Calvary Episcopal Church in West Philadelphia. "To act as if we can just move on without a public reconciliation of sin is to continue with more of the same and not change."

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said after the service that it was important to speak in detail about how the church had been complicit in slavery.

In her homily, she noted how Trinity Church on Wall Street had slaves in the 1700s, as had the Virginia Seminary. The Virginia Diocese reported in 1860 that 80 percent of its clergy owned slaves.

"The details are important," she said, "because it brings it down to a human level."

"We have to act it out and make it feel real with flesh and blood," Schori said. "That's what was significant about today."

The Rev. Diana Carroll, 26, of the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square, said she had learned things about the church's legacy from the service and a workshop the day before.

"There were things this weekend that shocked me," Carroll said. For example, she said, she had learned that during colonial times, the Episcopal Church directly collected money from plantation owners who had slaves.

"It really came home to me," she said.

The Rev. Thomas Logan, a 96-year-old African American, said he is old enough to remember the days of segregation in the church. After his ordination in 1938, he led a black congregation in Yonkers, N.Y., that met in the gym - of a white congregation.

"We had to stay in the gym to worship while the white parishoners had a church," Logan said.

He said the highlight of yesterday's service was Communion. "The bishop, who is a white woman, gave me, a black person, Communion," Logan said.

"I realized I was somebody," he said.

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.