Cornerstones of Faith

Published 11:36 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

There’s a joke among the congregation at St. John’s Episcopal Church that there are wasps in the building whose families go back to Colonial times.

It’s an old joke about an old family of wasps in an old building used by one of Suffolk’s oldest congregations.

The story of St. John’s and its one-time sister congregation at Glebe Episcopal Church near Driver is, in fact, one of the oldest stories of the European influence in America. Though Glebe is a bit older than St. John’s, both churches trace their history on a sometimes broken line that stretches all the way back into the 17th century.

Today, Glebe and St. John’s stand as the oldest church buildings in the city, if not the oldest congregations. Their history — at times independent of each other and at times entwined as sister congregations sharing resources, leaders and even congregants — gives them a unique perspective on the area around the Nansemond River.

It’s a history that the parishes can trace back to the Church of England and early American colonists and then forward through time to the American Revolution, the Civil War and into the modern era — and the river runs through it all.

It began in England in April 1606, when King James I granted the charter that formed the Virginia Company, calling for the colonists to spread the “Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government …”

The Nansemond River delivered the first group of English settlers to the area in 1609, a group of 120 men led from Jamestown settlement by Capt. John Martin, probably in search of new oyster beds.

They were driven out by the Nansemond Indians, but English settlement of the area was just a matter of time. By 1630, the Europeans were back, and this time for good. The settlers brought with them the Anglican Church, and in 1642 the river became the dividing line between two of the three parishes that Virginia’s legislative assembly formed from the area.

The parishes would come to be known as Upper, Lower and Chuckatuck. Through the years, the Upper Parish would support churches in the areas that would eventually come to be known as Benn’s Church, Reid’s Ferry and — eventually — Downtown Suffolk.

The Lower and Chuckatuck Parishes —separated by the Nansemond River — also went through changes during the years, but the parish churches that stand today are the oldest church buildings still in use in the city.

Glebe’s building, constructed in 1738 on land donated by Richard Bennett, was originally known as Bennett’s Creek Church. It was the second home of that congregation, whose original frame building had been described in a 1737 vestry book as being in “ruinous condition.”

That frame church had been built in 1643 on a portion of 450 acres that had been donated in the Lower Parish by Percival Champion.

A “glebe,” under English law, was a farm that provided revenue for a church. Champion’s donation did just that for the Lower Parish, and even today the proceeds from leasing the farm around Glebe Episcopal Church continue to support that church’s activities.

The current St. John’s building, on the other hand, was completed in 1756 for the sum of 350 British pounds, by contractor Moses Allmand.

By then, the churches were part of a combined Suffolk Parish, which was formed in 1725 when the Lower and Chuckatuck parishes were united because they could not support independent ministers for each of the two churches.

That marriage continued for more than 250 years, and the river played an important role throughout, as ministers and parishioners used it to travel to and from church services.

In 1764, the Virginia Assembly passed an act exempting ministers and congregants from tolls when crossing the river by ferry to attend church services. Since those tolls represented a portion of the church’s income, a Suffolk vestry committee eventually succeeded in convincing the Assembly to repeal the act, exempting only the minister from the ferry tolls.

That exemption made it cheaper for the minister to travel from one church to the other, making it easier for them to share his services.

As motorized traffic replaced horses and carriages, the Nansemond River became less important as a route between destinations and more of an obstacle between those same destinations. In 1928, a bridge was built to connect one side of the river to the other, and both ministers and congregants soon found the trip between Glebe and St. John’s a far easier one.

Late in the 20th century, a booming national economy had resulted in unprecedented growth in and around Suffolk. With Hampton Roads creeping ever westward, housing developments and industrial parks began to spring up in North Suffolk, and the Bennett’s Creek/Driver area began experiencing some of the hottest growth in the area. Even the communities around the sleepy village of Chuckatuck felt the results, as roads were cut through an old farm across from St. John’s for a new housing development.

Both churches began experiencing growth as a result of all the new residents in their communities, and they began wishing for a release from their arranged marriage.

Through the centuries, frustrations had grown between the congregations. Their shared history had included some pivotal moments — like the day in 1775 when Parson John Agnew was run out of church by an angry supporter of the Revolution after the parson preached a sermon denouncing the sins of disloyalty and rebellion. Agnew never returned, and the congregant, Major William Cowper, was elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776.

But the relationship was unable to weather the storm caused by Suffolk’s economic success.

St. John’s, especially, had grown, according to the Rev. Ross F. Keener, the Rector at Glebe.

“I suspect at the time that there were a lot of people at St. John’s who thought that Glebe was a drag on their ability to grow,” he said in a recent interview. “For both churches, the other one was ‘that church on the other side of the river.’ People of the church become very possessive of their priest,” Keener added.

In fact, when the split took place in 1998, the priest that the two congregations shared went to work full-time at St. John’s. Glebe, which had wanted its own full-time priest but couldn’t afford one, wound up with a ‘supply priest’ from the Episcopal Church. It’s a job Keener has held ever since.

By contrast, St. John’s has been through a number of spiritual leaders in the ensuing 10 years.

Once again, the river played a big role in the destinies of the two churches. In 2005, the Kings Highway drawbridge was declared unsafe. Within two years, it had been demolished and removed, leaving the portion of Kings Highway where St. John’s church sits an out-of-the-way dead end.

Coupled with the collapse of the housing market, development on that side of the river stalled. Even improvements to the road in front of the housing development across from St. John’s were abandoned.

“There was a lot of optimism when (St. John’s) church broke away from Glebe,” said the Rev. Earnest Graham, Rector of St. John’s. “Once that bridge was taken down, a lot of that optimism diminished.”

Graham said traffic by the church has diminished since the bridge went down. Families that might have visited from the other side of the river now face a 25-minute detour to get there. Unable to continue to support a full-time priest, the church found itself in a string of relationships with part-time ministers, supply clergy and now contract rectors.

Glebe, on the other hand, has maintained its membership levels — and even experienced some growth — since the split, according to Keener.

“The bridge was the defining moment,” he said, noting that at least a couple of families that once called St. John’s their church home now attend services at Glebe.

While St. John’s was also hurt by the burst of the housing bubble, a number of developments in the Bennett’s Creek and Driver area already had been completed and sold when housing sales began their fall, and families that had moved into the area were already looking for a place to go to church. Glebe was one of the beneficiaries of all that residential growth.

Clearly, the split did not go the way that either congregation had expected, and some hard feelings were sure to follow.

“When I got here, folks were still referring to the folks at St. John’s as ‘them’ and ‘they,’” Keener said.

Things have begun to change, though. A younger generation has begun to take the reins at Glebe, and there is, perhaps, less of that old animosity that arose from sharing so much for so long. Keener hopes he and Graham can help bring the congregations back into fellowship with one another.

“I’m looking forward to bringing the two congregations together,” Keener said, “to sort of bridge the gap.”

A quick smile appeared on his face. “No pun intended.” ←