Church to take pilgrimage

Published 9:27 pm Friday, February 24, 2017

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church will begin celebrations of its 375th anniversary this weekend, when it will take parishioners and guests on a pilgrimage to each of the five sites where the congregation has worshipped over the years.

“There aren’t too many churches that have been around for 375 years, and there aren’t too many churches that have been at five locations,” said the Rev. Dr. Keith Emerson, rector at St. Paul’s. “It’s a neat opportunity for us to put our feet on the ground where generations of people who brought the faith to where we are now at St. Paul’s have walked.”

The church was established in 1642, when the county was split into three parishes. As a result, Glebe Episcopal Church in Driver and St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chuckatuck also have the same birthdate. After the Revolutionary War, the Episcopal Church formed from the Church of England.

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“Initially, it would have been the only church,” Emerson said. “The Church of England here would have worked hard to keep other groups out.”

The first site, where the 1642 church was built, is off Route 10 just south of the Reids Ferry Bridge, through a cotton field and in the woods.

Emerson said this site features the footprint of the building still visible and at least one grave that dates to the late 1600s.

Because of this site, especially, those hoping to go on the pilgrimage Sunday morning are encouraged not to wear their usual church clothes.

“That’s the hardest one to get to,” Emerson said.

Construction on the second location was completed in 1753. It was located near the current intersection of Church and Western streets, behind the post office on North Main Street. The building survived the Revolutionary War but fell into disrepair as the former Church of England fell out of favor among the new Americans.

The building was torn down by 1820. Its bricks were sold off, and the well trained eye can still spot them in other buildings around Suffolk, Emerson said. The site still contains a historical monument with tablets naming vestry members and former rectors, as well as one marked grave.

The third site was at the Union Chapel in what is now Cedar Hill Cemetery. Several local religious groups, including the Methodists and Baptists, also used the building. The Episcopalians worshipped here from about 1802 to 1846, Emerson said. The chapel was removed by 1872, but the surrounding cemetery remained and expanded, becoming the large historical site known today.

St. Paul’s, as it had come to be known by the early 1800s, moved to the 300 block of North Main Street in 1846. The site was located near the current Obici Healthcare Foundation office. The building saw much use during the Civil War, including use for services by Northern Episcopalians occupying the city. But the congregation had outgrown the building by the end of the century, and the vestry determines an expansion is needed.

The first service in the current building was held June 16, 1895. Several additions, expansions and renovations have taken place. The 125th anniversary of the current site will take place in 2020.

Emerson said the church will have parts of its service at each of the five sites on Sunday, ending at its current site about 11:30 a.m. with a light lunch following.

The buses will leave from in front of the current site, 213 N. Main St., at 8 a.m. sharp, Emerson said. Seats are still available.

Emerson said he hopes many will be able to attend.

“There’s a real power in knowing your story and being able to see yourself located within that story and be able to share that and build on it,” Emerson said. “It will give us a sense of place — where we are and where we’ve been.”

He said he hopes community members will also be able to attend.

“In many ways, I do see this as a celebration not only for St. Paul’s but for all of Suffolk,” he said. “In some respects, every Christian tradition in Suffolk has its roots at our beginning.”

Emerson said the church will hold a big celebration on Sunday, June 4. The church also is in the process of creating  way to display some of its historic artifacts, including an altar cloth that was a gift from Queen Anne in the early 1700s, a Bible from 1751 and a prayer book from the 1840s.

“It’s a nice way to have some of the history be part of our ongoing story,” Emerson said.