Sunday, January 16, 2011

Oldest Church in America

I love to visit old churches and learn there was one in Hampton near us. We set the GPS and soon found St. John’s Church, alleged as the oldest English-speaking parish in America, founded in 1610. The church of St. John’s is a 1728 worship building displaying beautiful colonial brickwork. It celebrated its 400th anniversary along with the City of Hampton, Virginia in 2010.

English settlers from Jamestown established a community and church on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula on July 9, 1610, one month after Lord De La Warr arrived at Jamestown with supplies that effectively ended the Starving Time in that settlement. This new settlement was named Kecoughtan after the Algonquian Native Americans living in the area.

Excavations in the Church Creek area of Hampton indicate that the earliest English settlements were near present-day LaSalle and Chesapeake Avenues. The first minister of the new parish was the Reverend William Mease who was appointed by the Bishop of London to lead the church at Kecoughtan. A historical marker on LaSalle Ave marks the approximate location of the first site.

In 1619 the settlement was renamed Elizabeth City. By 1623 the town had re-established itself east of Hampton River, where the second church of Elizabeth City parish was built. The site is included within the grounds of what is now Hampton University. Abandoned in 1667 after a third church was built, the foundations of the second church were discovered in 1910. It was a small wooden structure to which a vestibule was added later. Today, the original foundations and some of the brick floor have been excavated and can be seen at the second site, along with information, conjectural paintings, and a historical marker. Artifacts found during the excavation are on display in the St. John's Parish House museum.

The third building of the parish was constructed more than a mile to the west of the second church at "Westwood’s Town Quarter", indicating that there was growth of the town on the west side of Hampton River. Like the previous structure, it was made of wood and was of similar size. This building continued in use for about 60 years. The site is located off West Pembroke Avenue east of LaSalle Avenue and features a historical marker, building foundations outlined by bricks, several 17th and 18th-century gravestones, and a protective brick wall.

In the early 18th Century, activity centered about the busy port which has become downtown Hampton. The parishioners petitioned the Governor for permission to relocate their place of worship closer to the population center. It was granted, and construction of the fourth church on one and one half acre on the outskirts of Hampton began. Henry Cary, Jr. of Williamsburg completed the present cruciform building in 1728. A belfry was added to the west front in 1762. The building was damaged in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. After full restoration, on Saturday, 6 March 1830, Bishop Richard Channing Moore, Bishop of Virginia, consecrated the church with its new name St. John's.

The building was damaged again during the Civil War on 7 August 1861. In an attempt to keep the town from Union occupation, Confederate soldiers set fire to homes, businesses and the church. The great bell was destroyed, and only the blackened walls remained by the time Union soldiers occupied the town and camped in the churchyard. As a result of the fire, St. John's is the only surviving colonial structure in downtown Hampton. Restoration was finished around 1869/1870. Although the exterior's colonial appearance was restored, the interior reflects the late 19th-century Victorian influence. Early in the 20th century, the rear tower was added, the west gallery was built in 1957, the chapel completed in 1985, and the current manual tracker organ installed in 1993.

The 1618 Communion Silver used today has the longest history of continuous use in America of any English church silver. The pieces were brought from England in 1619 and used in a church founded in 1618 located in Smith's Hundred in Virginia, which lay in the point between the Chickahominy and the James Rivers, eight miles northwest of Jamestown. The church was nearly destroyed in the Indian Massacre of 22 March 1622. The silver was carried by Governor George Yeardley to Jamestown and afterward, approximately 1628, given to the second Elizabeth City Church, which had just been built. St. John's continues to use communion silver on special occasions. The chalice has inscribed the London date-letter for 1618-1619 and the text THE COMMVNION CVPP FOR SNT MARYS CHVRCH IN SMITHS HVNDRED IN VIRGINIA. There are two patens with the same London date-letter. The first paten has the inscription Whosoever shall eate this bread and drinke the cupp of the Lord/unworthily shalbe gilty of the body & blood of ye Lord Cor Ixith. The second paten has written If any man eate of this Bread he shall live for ever John VIth.

In 1887 the Native American students from the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute made a stained glass window depicting the baptism of Pocahontas for their Church, although Pocahontas was not baptized there.

On the chapel wall to the left as you face the main altar is an Aumbry. The door panel consists of pieces of the 13th century stained glass from St. Helena Church, Willoughby Parish, Lincolnshire County, United Kingdom - the parish in which Captain John Smith was baptized. The panel was presented to the St. John's Parish by the rector of Willoughby St. Helena on Sunday, 14 July 1985, as part of St. John's 375th anniversary celebration.

We arrived at the church too late to enter into it, which was a disappointment to me. The ladies decided to remain in the car while my traveling buddy, Jim Lowe, and I walked into the graveyard that surrounded the church. The oldest grave site I saw the person was buried in 1701.

After getting back to the resort we were staying I gathered much of the facts for what I have recorded above.

It was indeed an eventful day for us.

And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily. Acts 16:5 (KJV)

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