Compiled by Lola Michael Russell from material provided by the Rev. Mariann Babnis, Elizabeth N. Saunders, and the Rev. Donna Jean Kiessling.
At this year’s convention, three of our parishes will be highlighted so we may learn about some of our neighbors, their histories, missions, outreach, and ongoing lives. These parishes were founded for different communities and at different times in the state’s history, some before the first diocesan convention of record held in 1791. However, their missions are the same — to spread the love of God in their communities and the world.
Located in Rehoboth Beach and Harbeson in Sussex County, All Saints’ Church and St. George’s Chapel were founded in 1892 and 1719 respectively, and they became one parish in 1980 with shared values of inclusiveness, community involvement, and spiritual meaning.
Christ Church, Delaware City, is in New Castle County, where the first Chesapeake & Delaware Canal ran through the county. Formally organized as a parish in 1848, the first worship service was held in 1851. After the C&D Canal moved further south, parish growth stymied, but the heart of the parish remained solid.
Located in Kent County, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Smyrna, began as a wooden chapel in 1744 in Duck Creek, although it is possible that Anglican services were held in the area as early as 1706. In 1828, a new church was consecrated on Union Street and, with many additions, it is now on the National Registry of Historic Places as part of the Smyrna Historic District.
Regardless of their location, these parishes have a common thread. They are all known as welcoming, inclusive parishes committed to outreach. They offer community activities ranging from running food pantries, thrift shops, and a faith-based preschool, to providing much needed resources for veterans and seamen.
Such is the diversity and long history of parish life in the Episcopal Church in Delaware. Each of these unique parishes will be featured in a brief video at the convention and you are invited to take some time and get to know your neighbors.
All Saints’ Church & St. George’s Chapel
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, All Saints’ Church was constructed in the 1890s to meet the needs of a growing number of Episcopalians migrating to the area. It is located on the ocean block and during the early years, services were held during the summer months only. Clergy were supplied through a variety of arrangements, often in combination with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes, five miles to the north. It was not until 1945 that All Saints’ became a year-round parish recognized by the Diocese of Delaware. From 1951 through August of 2001, All Saints’ Church was served by only two rectors, the Rev. Richard Bailey and the Rev. James Manion. It is the only church in Rehoboth Beach on its original site and maintaining its original design.
Father Bailey’s influence was strong in building the church community, shaping the direction of liturgy, and establishing many of the groups and events that still define the community today. Father Manion, arriving in 1981, continued to support and enhance many of these efforts, particularly encouraging the strong All Saints’ tradition of outreach into the community. The last rector, the Rev. Max Wolf, continued and expanded this outreach into many new sectors of the community.
St. George’s Chapel was originally a country chapel, completed in 1719 in the Indian River Hundred to accommodate the needs of farmers and plantation owners who lived in the outskirts of the town of Lewes. (In 1682, William Penn directed that Delaware be divided into townships, referred to as hundreds, occupied by 100 families where each family would have an average of about ten members including servants.) It was easier for a minister to come out to the chapel than for the country families to make it into town, hence it was considered to be a chapel at ease. The chapel’s location on a branch of Herring Creek allowed many of the families to arrive by boat. Services were held at 2:30 p.m. because the preacher came after holding morning services at either St. Peter’s Church, Lewes, or All Saints’, Rehoboth.
Sadly, the original chapel was destroyed by fire in 1792. The present chapel was completed in 1794 on the same spot. Unusual for this period, it was constructed of brick, which was fired on site. It is still referred to as The Brick Chapel by locals. The early Federal style interior houses an hour-glass pulpit in its original position, described as being as high as the gallery. The chapel is of the single liturgical center plan, with pulpit, reading desk, and altar together, which was an experimental design of the 1700s. The Chapel’s windows are bubbled, hand-blown glass. The oldest marked grave in the churchyard is dated 1732, and many local heroes and historical figures are buried there.
The 300th anniversary celebration of St. George’s Chapel will kick off on Sunday,
January 13, 2019. This service will pay tribute to its long and colorful history with the Holy Communion service read from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and music appropriate for the period. A leather bound copy of the Book of Common Prayer, printed in 1718, may be found at the Chapel. The Chapel will hold activities throughout the year to mark the anniversary, and everyone is welcome to attend.
St. George’s Chapel is a treasure that has been lovingly maintained and restored over the years. In 1950, All Saints’ Church took over ownership, and the two became the Episcopal Parish of All Saints’ Church and St. George’s Chapel. In the 1960s, planning and research began for a complete and authentic restoration.
In 1980, the Rehoboth Beach and Harbeson congregations officially merged as one parish with two congregations that share values of inclusiveness, community involvement, and spiritual meaning. The churches share clergy and have a joint vestry. It is an inviting, thriving, loving parish with a church by the beach and a colonial chapel surrounded by farmland just inland. In addition, the parish has opened two busy thrift shops that serve the wider community and provide additional revenue for the fundraising groups to which the parish donates. The congregations share extensive community outreach and music programs throughout the year, and the parish is noted in the area for being fully inclusive. In fact, All Saints’ Church holds a Sunday breakfast with the motto, “Ya gotta eat, so we might as well eat together.”
Christ Church, Delaware City
When the first Chesapeake & Delaware Canal opened in 1829 and ran through Delaware City, ships could run directly from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Thinking Delaware City would flourish because of it, many people bought land, and Christ Episcopal Church was one of many new buildings. Formally organized as a parish in 1848, construction of Christ Church began in the following year, and the first worship service was held in 1851. Parish tradition contends that the building’s design was based on the Church of the Redeemer for Seamen, an ornate floating edifice in gothic revival style, which served the needs of Port of Philadelphia sailors and Delaware River seamen from 1849 to 1853.
In 1927 a new and broader canal opened and, unfortunately, the entrance to the canal was two miles south of Delaware City. Boats sailed straight past Delaware City, new building ceased, and many people left town. Christ Church lost wealthy parishioners and their money. How was the church to survive? The congregation did much of the needed work, the diocese paid for priests, and maintenance of the buildings was minimal. Today, it is still a hard-working congregation, paying for a part-time pastor, and maintaining its buildings with thanks to the Trustees’ Advance & Development Funds for its loans.
Christ Church and three other community churches support a Community Food Closet, raise funds in a Spring Fling Fundraiser to send children to Camp Arrowhead, and offer ecumenical services together. Alcoholics Anonymous uses the parish hall twice a week for meetings and there are many outreach projects: caps and scarves knitted for the Seaman’s Center, money raised for a water well through Episcopal Relief &Development, and support of the Sunday Breakfast Mission. Special Christmas outreach projects include collecting needed items for Victory Home, which houses 15 veterans, and paying utility bills to ensure people in need have heat, water, and electricity.
Over the years, Christ Church has had a priest and three outstanding members who did unprecedented good deeds. In 1990, the Rev. David B. Nickerson (Father Nick) became the first African American priest serving in a predominantly white church. Dr. Hilda Davis was the first African American to hold a full-time University of Delaware contract and the first female senior warden in the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware. Dr. Davis passed away in 2001 at the age of 96. Parishioner Littleton Mitchell was president of the NAACP in Delaware from 1961 to 1991. He was the first black employee of the Governor Bacon Health Center, and when he started teaching swimming there he couldn’t even get in the pool with the white children. He prodded, poked, and pushed the system and got things done, working tirelessly for equal rights. Mary Ash and her husband Charles G. Ash were very active members in the church. Charles died in 1889, and Mary died in 1929. Mary left her estate to the diocese in the amount of $180,000 in cash and other properties. A similar donation today would have an approximate value between 4 – 5 million dollars. This gift, which kept the diocese running during the 1929 – 1939 Great Depression, is held in the Diocesan Fund named Charles & Mary Ash Memorial Fund, and it is designated to “best promote the Gospel of Christ and extend the worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Delaware forever.”
St. Peter’s Church, Smyrna
The members of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Smyrna know their parish is a church worth finding; however, people may have to search for it for two reasons. First, traffic on North Union Street travels in three different directions within three blocks: one block south is one-way south, St. Peter’s block is one-way north, and one block north is two-way. As a result, the church’s front street is travelled primarily by locals or those taking shortcuts. Second, it is one of three historic churches with a steeple within a few blocks of each other. While St. Peter’s steeple was originally 100 feet high, when it was rebuilt in 1880 after a windstorm blew it off in 1876, the steeple was capped at 86 feet high. That extra fourteen feet makes a difference, as people looking for St. Peter’s usually find one of the other two churches first.
Anglican services may have been held as early as 1706 in the area; however, the first records for St. Peter’s were contained in the parish records of Christ Episcopal Church, Dover, which were destroyed in a fire in the early nineteenth century. The first structure was a wooden chapel completed in 1744 in Duck Creek. The small chapel was replaced with a larger brick church 20 years later. At the time, the parish was sharing the Rev. Charles Inglis with Christ Church, Dover, and he named the new brick church St. Peter’s. Historical records are silent for the period between 1793 and 1827 except for a report from the Rev. Alexander G. Cummins that the parish languished during these years. In 1827, the old church at Duck Creek had deteriorated beyond repair and was razed. A new one was built and consecrated in 1828 on Union Street, one mile south, to keep St. Peter’s within the main town limits, which had also moved south. The former church site is St. Peter’s cemetery.
St. Peter’s continued sharing clergy with either Christ Church, Dover, or St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Middletown, until 1850 when the Rev. Samuel T. Carpenter was called as its first rector. Rapid growth of the town and congregation resulted in adding a transept and extending the sanctuary in 1857. A parish hall was added in 1872, and a Sunday school wing was completed in 1958. In the last fifty years, several older neighboring properties were purchased and converted into two parking lots, a backyard, and an open space.
On May 23, 1980, St. Peter’s was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Smyrna Historic District. Beginning in 1885, the clear sanctuary windows were gradually replaced with gorgeous stained glass. The window depicting the Holy Family was made in Tours, France, and the window of the Good Shepherd was made in Innsbruck, Austria.
Since 1994, St. Peter’s principal outreach is its preschool, preparing three- and four-year-old children for kindergarten. The preschool provides students with a faith based, rich background of experience to develop reading readiness and nurture the natural creativity and curiosity of God’s beloved children. The parish opens its doors throughout the year to community events such as a block party celebrating the patron feast of St. Peter, dinner with Santa, a pancake supper, lunch with the Easter Bunny, homecoming on the fourth Sunday in Lent, an event honoring those who work in helping professions, and a spring and fall tea party. All are welcome to come and visit.