Compiled by Lola Michael Russell from material provided by Dawn Martinez, St. James, Newport; Dick Carter and Roberta Collins, St. Mark’s, Millsboro; and Michael Redmond, Trinity Parish
The three churches to be featured at our convention were founded at different times in the state’s history and include the oldest church building in the country still used for Christian worship. However, their missions are the same — to spread the love of God in their communities and the world.
Trinity Parish, Wilmington, in New Castle County, is the oldest parish. It embraces two churches and traces its roots to the earliest days of European settlement in Delaware, with the establishment in 1638 of a Swedish Lutheran parish. It was incorporated into the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1791, as Old Swedes Church. As the city of Wilmington and the congregation grew, a larger building was needed. The cornerstone for Trinity Church was laid in 1890 and the first service held in 1891.
St. Mark’s Church, Millsboro, in Sussex County, is the town’s oldest existing house of worship, but its history dates back to Prince George’s Chapel near Dagsboro built in 1717. Dagsboro’s importance declined as industry flourished in Millsboro in the early 1800s. As a result, much of the congregation relocated to Millsboro and helped to establish the new parish of St. Mark’s in 1847, with the church being constructed there in 1848 and 1849.
St. James Church, Newport, in New Castle County, is situated on a hill at the end of the town. An acknowledged landmark, it is known locally as the church on the hill, and there has been a ministry on the site since 1772. In 1776, its partially constructed building was taken over by Delaware Revolutionary Forces, and it was used again for worship in 1787. After a devastating fire in 1810, the foundation stone for the church of today was laid in 1875.
Over the centuries, all three parishes have survived challenging and sometimes devastating situations to remain active and committed to serving their communities. Their missions include support to 12-step programs, the arts, and local food banks. Their outreach touches the elderly, the homeless, and schoolchildren in need.
Such is the diversity and long history of parish life in the Episcopal Church in Delaware. Each unique parish will be featured in a video postcard at convention so you will have the opportunity to get to know them better. Learn more about these churches in the following pages, listed in historical date order:
Trinity Parish, Wilmington — more than 300 years of proclaiming Christ the Lord
Trinity Parish traces its roots to the earliest days of the European settlement of Delaware. The parish was founded in 1638 by Swedish Lutherans in what was then known as Fort Christina (later Wilmington), in the shortlived colony of New Sweden.
With changes in sovereignty and immigration, what had been founded as a Swedish Lutheran parish became part of the Church of England, although services in the Swedish language continued there well into the 18th century. In 1791, following the departure of the last Swedish pastor, Trinity Parish was incorporated into the newly organized Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States.
Today’s Trinity Parish continues a proud heritage of ethnic and linguistic diversity. A typical Sunday features four Eucharists in two languages, in two sanctuaries three miles apart. Down by the water, Old Swedes hosts a service, just as it has done every Sunday since the building’s consecration on Trinity Sunday, 1699. Uptown, Trinity Church, consecrated May 15, 1906, hosts three services, including a Spanish Eucharist for the Latino congregation that has had a home there since 1993.
Both buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places — Old Swedes, as a rare survivor of Swedish settlement in the New World, situated within an equally historic burial ground, and a constituent of First State National Historical Park, and Trinity Church, as a major Gothic Revival design by the important Philadelphia-based architect Theophilus P. Chandler Jr. (1845–1928).
The original Swedish church had been located within the walls of Fort Christina, near the site where the Swedes had landed. As more Swedes made the voyage to the New World, a larger church was needed. The foundation stones for the present building were laid in 1698. The building materials were local blue granite and Swedish bricks that had been used as ship’s ballast.
Old Swedes claims to be “the nation’s oldest church building still used for worship as originally built.” Its pulpit may be the nation’s oldest, inscribed with the names of parishioners who donated its black walnut planks. The Burial Ground is the resting place for more than 8,000 persons, including a variety of individuals significant to the history of Delaware, such as humble settlers, U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Francis Bayard Sr. (1828– 1898), two U.S. senators, and several Union Army officers.
As time went on, Trinity Parish outgrew Old Swedes. In 1830, the parish built Trinity Chapel at the corner of Fifth and King Streets. The chapel congregation eventually purchased the land at N. Adams Street, where the cornerstone was laid on May 1, 1890. The new church was blessed, with its first service held on January 29, 1891.
Trinity Church is constructed of grayish-white Avondale limestone laid in random coursed rock-faced ashlar blocks in the Gothic Revival style. It features pointed arch windows and doors, a high spire, pinnacles on the side of the building, and buttresses. The parish house and rectory were added to the church in 1911 and Transfiguration Chapel was added in 1949. An adjacent brick three-story row house, known as Harris House, is attached to the complex by a second story walkway.
Inside, the walls are stone. The ceiling is wooden with an exposed king-post truss-support system, with the truss resting on hammer beams carved to resemble angels. This roof style is modeled on English Gothic parish churches. The details of the interior include much fine woodcarving and stonework, including the elaborate Gothic tracery reredos and pulpit added in 1911, carved of Caen stone. The baptismal font, carved in 1872, was moved from the old church at Fifth and King Streets. The brass lectern in the shape of an eagle was given in memoriam by Samuel Biddle. He and his wife were the first couple married in the church, but she and an infant son died in childbirth a year later.
The stained glass windows are perhaps the most striking aspect of the church interior. The church originally had amber-colored leaded glass windows, but over the years, many stained glass windows were added. The greatest of these are the six windows designed by the Tiffany Studios of New York between 1890 and 1900. These windows include the altar window, illustrating Mt. 11:28; the east transept window, illustrating Lk. 2:8– 14; the west transept window, illustrating Mt. 25:40, and two lancet windows on the south wall of the west transept.
In 1911, the parish house and rectory were added to the church. The addition was designed by Frank Miles Day and Company of Philadelphia and used the same material as the main body of the church. The Gothic Revival style was used again, to blend the addition with the church.
Trinity Parish’s ancestors in faith left the parish with impressive resources for worship and service. The people of Trinity-Old Swedes use them today to live out Jesus’ commandment to love God and neighbor by a strong commitment to community outreach. The parish has always shared the abundance with which Trinity has been blessed — whether the need is just around the corner or halfway around the world.
Two examples of this are Delaware Futures and TRIAD, community programs that began in the parish hall and grew into independent 501 (c) (3) non-profits for which the parish provides space.
Delaware Futures prepares economically disadvantaged youth for college by providing academic, social, and motivational support, as well as cultural enrichment activities throughout their high school experience. Upon high school graduation, students who meet the academic requirements qualify for partial or full scholarships to one of ten partnering colleges.
TRIAD Addiction Recovery Services provides free counseling and assistance navigating the treatment process for anyone suffering from drug or alcohol addiction.
In addition, Trinity-Old Swedes members provide many services to support Friendship House, a Delaware non-profit ministry for the homeless, which provides temporary and transitional shelters, counseling and referral services, and job training programs. Parishioners prepare and share dinner with homeless men at an overnight shelter and with women in a transitional housing program; tutor for GED, ESL, and computer programs; host homeless persons in a daytime winter sanctuary; and clean, refurbish, and paint facilities as needed.
The parish also presents free concerts, Bible study, and religious education programs.
Trinity remains a vibrant community of believers open to the times, where people from different backgrounds come together to praise God, foster the fundamental dignity of all people, and advocate for justice. Trinity enthusiastically affirms the national church’s motto: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!”
St. James Church, Newport — the church on the hill
St. James Church, Newport is situated on a hill at the end of the town, and a ministry has been on this site since 1772. St. James is a well-known landmark for the people of the county and is known as the church on the hill or the church with the cemetery. St. James, Newport is only five miles from Old St. James, Stanton known as St. James’ Millcreek. They are, however, two distinct parishes and good relations have existed between them for over 275 years.
In 1716, Mr. James Robinson gave land for a church building in Stanton, Delaware. In 1761, needed repairs were significant enough that the congregation decided to erect a new church building and place it in Newport. Land was purchased for this purpose on top of the hill overlooking the Christina River.
In 1772, a brick building was begun in Newport at Market and British Streets. The congregation was scattered about White Clay Creek, Stanton, and Newport, and the ministry was shared by clergy from Immanuel Church, New Castle and Old Swedes Church, Wilmington.
In 1776, the partially constructed building was taken over by Delaware Revolutionary Forces and used for their headquarters and stables. The partially finished building was used again for worship in 1787.
A fire destroyed the building in 1810. Later, in 1855, a building was purchased from the Methodists under the guidance of the Rt. Rev. Alfred Lee, the first Bishop of the Diocese of Delaware. A few years later, trustees were appointed to hold and manage the property on church hill.
In June of 1875, the cornerstone for a white Gothic church was laid at a site behind the present church building. From that date through 1930, many clergymen served in the ministry of St. James, some for as little as one year and one for eleven years.
The Rev. Millard Riker, who was an expert in woodworking, came to St. James. While he was there the church was redecorated, the altar and tables remodeled, and a pulpit, which is still in use, created.
The Rev. Alexander Boyer was ordained in the old church building and began a very active ministry there. In 1947, St. James, Newport, was granted parish status. At that time there were 194 students in the church school and some 200 communicants on the church roll. A building fund was launched to construct the present building.
The Rev. Charles Schreiner came in 1951 and more progress was made. A steeple was added, the parish house was remodeled, light fixtures and a colonial altar were introduced, a wing was added onto the original building, and various furnishings from the old church were brought over and used.
In 1954, the Rev. Charles Priebe became the rector, and served the church in the longest ministry of some 22 years. Many physical properties were improved. The Rt. Rev. J. Brooke Mosely, the sixth bishop of the diocese, consecrated the church in 1955 in the name of the disciple James, the son of Zebedee. The consecration document is on display in the church hall.
After the Rev. Priebe resigned in 1976, there have been two full-time rectors: the Rev. Ronald Fitts (1976–1983) and the Rev. George Deatrick (1990–1992). A variety of clergy have filled in the gaps, for which the congregation and the vestries have been most grateful; these men and women have conducted Sunday services and provided counsel when needed.
Those who were interim, part-time, or supply clergy have included: the Revs. Lee Brownell, Ed Harris, David Helms, Marvin Hummel, Kate Mead, William Merrill, David Nickerson, John and Kay Scobell, Joseph Tatnall, Bob Toulson, Rod Welles, Cal Wick, Phillip Wilson, the Rev. Canons Mark Harris, Oran Warder, and Carl Kunz.
Over the years, the size of the congregation has decreased as a result of children moving away, retirees changing geographical locations, and deaths within the parish. However, it is a pleasure to note that some younger members are taking an interest in the St. James church family.
Although St. James cannot afford full-time clergy at this time, members are forging new ground. August 1, 1994, saw the beginning of a team ministry with Church of the Nativity, Manor Park; Christ Church, Delaware City; and St. Nicholas, Newark. The Rev. Blanche L. Powell was the team leader and primary pastor for St. James. The team ministry came to an end in October 2001. The Rev. Blanche Powell retired and on January 1, 2002, the Rev. Sarah Nelson became the rector of St. James and is with the church today inspiring members to be “all that we can be.”
St. Mark’s Church, Millsboro — the oldest existing house of worship in the town
Erected in 1870, St. Mark’s is the oldest existing house of worship in the Town of Millsboro, but the history of its congregation is older still. Prince George’s Chapel was established on Pepper’s Creek near Dagsboro in 1717, itself a branch of the even older St. Martin’s Parish of Worcester County, Maryland, of which lower Sussex County was then a part. Although Dagsboro is a far older town than Millsboro, its importance declined as the thriving commercial center of Millsboro grew around the Head of the River Mills, Waples Tannery, and Wright’s Ironworks during the early 1800s. Finally, by the early 1840s, most of the Prince George’s congregation had relocated to Millsboro, and seeking to worship nearer their homes, they helped establish the newparish of St. Mark’s Church in 1847.
The first church structure was erected on the present church grounds in 1848 and 1849, on land donated by Miers S. Burton. It served the parish for only a generation before being replaced in 1870 with the present church building, a much more elegant structure built in the then popular Victorian Gothic style.
In the 149 years since it was built, the present church has undergone considerable change, beginning with erecting the church steeple in 1880. A new altar and other interior improvements were added in 1895. In 1896, the prominent churchman and merchant, Jacob Reese Godwin, contributed funds to have a full brick foundation built under the church, which had formerly rested on brick piers. The present church pews were added in 1901 and a cast-iron fence around the churchyard in 1903. This was replaced in the early 1940s by the present brick wall.
A vesting room was added to the side of the building by I. John Collins, a member of the church, who also served as contractor for the 1963 construction of the St. Mark’s parish hall to the rear of the church. The St. Mark’s rectory was built as a private home by the Rev. Robert Ellis during his long tenure as rector from 1864 to 1887. When the Rev. Louis Wheeler Wells came to St. Mark’s as rector following the Rev. Ellis’ death, he purchased the home and enlarged it greatly, using it as a site for many church activities. Following his death in 1923, his family gave the old home to the parish as a permanent rectory. Several priests resided there; later it was rented before finally being torn down. In 2006, a community labyrinth and meditation gardens were completed on the site of the former rectory. An annual Fourth of July celebration has been held there for 12 years, as well as weddings and special walks.
St. Mark’s is dedicated to mission in the community and the world. The parish hall has been used for scouts, Lion’s Club, weddings, fundraisers, teas, and other activities. Presently, AA meets there and so do three Bible study groups. Free lunches on Saturdays are served by the Ark of Refuge Mission Shelter with the help of parishioners, and members of other churches and organizations. Recently a joint community Thanksgiving dinner served 700 people in the parish hall.
The church gives gifts to the needy at Christmas, sends clothes and personal items to the Seamen’s Center, supports the UTO, donates to ERD for Hurricane Relief, sends Christmas Shoeboxes to Samaritan’s Purse, sends birthday gifts to clients in Stockley Center, and generously supports the Christian Storehouse thrift shop, the local food bank, and other sources of help to those in need. In addition, it sends donations to about 20 other organizations.
The Rev. David Archibald is presently the part-time priest. Under his leadership, the congregation has grown, devoutly worshipping and enjoying fellowship together as so many generations before them have done. After 172 years of life as a parish, the church, and the spirit of worship and mission stand strong.