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Old Chester, PA: St. Paul's Episcopal Church


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St. Paul's Church Chester, Pennsylvania , 1702-2002

Compiled by Nancy Crossman

The Reverend Evan Evans, Rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia, established a mission in Chester. The Rev. Evans worshipped with this mission congregation once every three weeks. In all probability they met in private homes, as was the custom in those days before a church was erected. Among the worshippers was a prominent Chester family, the Sandelands. James Sandeland had died some ten years prior to the young mission's inception. Wishing to have a memorial tablet to place over his grave the family sent to England to have one made. After it arrived, Jasper Yeates, son-in law of James Sandelands, was instrumental in leading a movement to construct a church over the grave and tablet. The location of this site was the Swedes' Burial Ground between what is now Welsh (known then as Lover's Lane, later as, Back) Street and Market (known then as High) Street on the south side of Third Street. This sincere group grew in numbers and in July 1702, the foundations of the first St. Paul's Church were laid. 

The 49 foot long, by 26 foot wide brick building, containing 24 pews, was divided into four parts by two aisles, one extending from the double doors at the main entrance from Market Street. The roof was oak and the rafters white-oak. The spacious chancel was paved with brick, as were the aisles. The new building was completed by the end of the year and the first service was conducted in January 24, 1703, the day before the Conversion of Saint Paul. The Rev. John Talbot, a missionary sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to carry the Message from New England to the Carolinas, preached the sermon that day, and who "after some debate" named the church St. Paul's. Mr. Evans was also present and continued holding occasional services until March 1, 1704 when the Reverend Henry Nichols became the first assigned rector. 

During this same year the Society presented the church with a large folio Bible. The church purchased a silver chalice and salver in 1705. The chalice was inscribed to Sir Jeffrey Jeffrys for his contribution toward the purchase. Queen Anne also presented a silver chalice and salver to St. Paul's. These precious possessions are kept secure in a vault at the bank and only removed for special occasions. Also in the vault are two "Pewter plates", so called. These pewter Offertory plates have been in the possession of the Church for over two hundred years. Stored there also a Flagon given by the ladies of the parish in 1866. 

The next thirty-five years saw the church in its formative stage and was marked by the twenty-one year pastorate of the Reverend Richard Backhouse, who also served our sister churches in Marcus Hook (St. Martin's) and Concord (St. John's), as did a number of ministers in the early days. The untiring Mr. Backhouse reported 60 communicants in Chester and Marcus Hook. In 1745, the bell tower was erected at the west end of the Church. In it hung a new bell made in England, costing about $100 and weighing 216 pounds. Cast on it were the words, "Roger Rice, Chester 1743." The Rev. Backhouse died in 1748 while rector and was reputedly buried in the old churchyard or in the church itself. 

St. Paul's, for almost a century following this period, experienced lean years evidenced by the lack of ministers and communicants. During the Revolutionary War the church was closed. The last recorded Vestry meeting was attended by the Reverend George Craig, at which time, he announced his appointment of Rector's Warden. There is no other minute of record until 1780 and it is not known just how long the church was closed. 

St. Paul's was one of the original founding churches of the Diocese of Pennsylvania at a meeting held in Christ Church, Philadelphia, PA on May 24, 1785. 

In the thirty-six years from 1776 to 1812, there were only six years in which services were held in St. Paul's under four rectors, and even in those six, only intermittently. This may be partly due to the pestilence known as yellow fever. In 1793, a party of boys in Chester went in a boat to a vessel lying in the stream on which were several people ill with the disease, and in that way spread the disease to some of the residents of the town and neighboring communities. Once again, during 1798, the dire pestilence appeared in the city of Chester. It was stated that almost one-fifth of the population of Chester succumbed to the fever. In other nearby localities, the disease was equally fatal. In this period, St. John's, Concord, separated from St. Paul's and St. Martin's. 

In 1810 the church building underwent alterations. The roof was raised, the pulpit moved to the center, and the chancel window was boarded up. In 1818, when the Rev. Jacob Morgan Douglass came there were seven communicants, when Rev. Richard U. Morgan left in 1831, there were none. 

In the excellent history of St. Paul's, written by the then Rector's Warden, William Shaler Johnson, the writer inscribed this pregnant paragraph:

"But it is said that night always seems darkest before the dawn and, in 1831, with the coming of the Rev. John Baker Clemson to the parish, the dawn broke that was to usher in a long day of spiritual life and activity." 

In 1835 the doors on the north and south sides were closed and replaced with windows. The pews were re-arranged and increased, a door was placed at the west end, a new chancel was built and a vestry room was added on the southwest comer. A belfry was added and the old bell tower was also removed at this time. In 1839 a Sunday School lecture room was constructed at the east end of the church. 

By 1843, the Sunday School was bursting at the seams. The increase in communicants was a concern of all and led to discussions over the advisability of building a more adequate facility. It was decided in 1849 to build a new church across the street opposite the old edifice. The new building was started in that year and completed in 1850. Unfortunately, the original church was demolished when work on the new one began. It is stated in Ashmead's History of Delaware County, Ch. XXXII (page 337) "I am aware that in taking down the old St. Paul's Church building in July, 1850, after it had stood one hundred and forty-eight years, two bricks, burned exceedingly hard and considerably larger in size that those in use at the present day, closely cemented together, and with the figures 1642 cut upon them, were found. These numerals must have been made upon them many years subsequent to that date, for in 1644 there was not a house standing in the present limits of Chester. Independently of that fact, we have documentary record of the exact date of the building, so circumstantially set forth that there is no room remaining for doubt." 

The new building, on the north side of Third Street, soon became a noted landmark in the community. Its architect was the famous Thomas U. Walter, architect of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. and many other notable structures. The church was built on the English basement plan, with the lower part used for Sunday School and meeting rooms. The church proper was located in the upper section. 

By December 22, 1851, making a joyous Christmas indeed, the debts were paid and the Rt. Rev. Alonzo Potter, Bishop of the Diocese, and the first of the two great Diocesan leaders to claim Chester as a residence, assisted by Bishop Lee of Delaware, consecrated the building. The communicate list then numbered about 126. 

In 1863, during the Civil War the Reverend Henry Brown became rector and remained in that capacity for the next thirty years. During this time it was again felt that the church was becoming crowded, so the building of St. Luke's Church was built in the South Ward. It lessened the pressure somewhat but the relief was only temporary and in the winter of 1872 -1873 nearly $15,000 was spent to enlarge the church. The front of the church including the tower was tom down and the building lengthened twenty-three feet, bringing it closer to the street. The number of pews was increased by one hundred and a gallery constructed at the south end bringing the seating capacity to 550. A new steeple and belfry were also built at that time. On Sunday, April 13, 1873, the congregation resumed services in St. Paul's with the Rector, Henry Brown, preaching the sermon. 

A devastating fire swept through the inside of the church in 1884 and extensive repairs had to be made. During these repairs, services were conducting at the First Presbyterian Church located at Fourth and Welsh Streets. 

The Reverend Mr. Brown retired in 1893 and was succeeded by the Reverend Francis M Taitt. The Reverend Taitt was to be the rector of St. Paul's until 1929, enjoying the longest rectorate of the church's history to date. He gained admiration, respect, and reverence, not only among his parishioners but by all in the community as well. Under him St. Paul's gained and retained an unparalleled stature. He became the Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1929 but remained an honorary member of St. Paul's Vestry until his death in 1943. 

In 1895, a decision was made to again relocate to a larger building in a more central location in the growing city. The cornerstone, a block of marble taken from near the site where St. Paul stood preaching to the Athenians, was laid June 1, 1899. The new building was completed by Easter Sunday 1900 at the cost of approximately fifty thousand dollars. The bell was removed from the belfry of the old church at Third and Welsh Streets to the new building in April 1900. 

1903 saw the 200th Anniversary of St. Paul's celebrated with many dignitaries taking part in the services. Among them was the Right Reverend Henry C. Potter, Bishop of New York, formerly the Bishop of Pennsylvania and the son of the afore-mentioned Bishop Alonzo Potter. 

When the Reverend Mr. Taitt became Bishop of Pennsylvania, his place as rector was taken by the Reverend Stanley V. Wilcox who served sixteen years. When Mr. Wilcox went into active duty in the Second World War, the Reverend George C. Anderson became locum tenens. In 1946 the Reverend Peter C. Van der Heil, Jr. began his four years of service to the parish. 

The Chapel of the Ascension was erected in 1948, in the transept of the church as a memorial gift. 

With the resignation of Reverend Van der Heil in 1950, the Vestry was again faced with the task of finding a competent and suitable rector, worthy of a long line of fine, upstanding men who had guided St. Paul's through the years. The Vestry called from Illinois, the Reverend John H. Hauser. Mr. Hauser was no stranger to Delaware County, having grown up in Lansdowne as a member of St. John the Evangelist Church. During his ten-year tenure as rector, Reverend Hauser saw the number of communicates rise to nearly 1300 and the building of an Education wing. 

Mr. Lewis H. Worrall, who had served St. Paul's m almost every position to which a layman was eligible, was ordained to the Sacred Order of the Deacons on Sunday, January 24, 1954. Deacon Worrall won the respect and gratitude, not only of the congregation of St. Paul's but of the many community organizations m which he served. He continued to serve his Church and his community until his death m February of 1998. 

In 1960 the Reverend Stuart A. L. Thomas began his service. His interest and competence in education set high standards for productivity in youth work of the church. The Reverend Warren E. Shaw was assistant to Mr. Thomas before beginning his service as rector in 1966. 

Under Reverend Shaw's guidance, St. Paul's continued to grow as a center for the Christian Community by holding joint services with surrounding churches. The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania assigned a Spanish-speaking curate, the Reverend Elias Penaloza, to St. Paul's in 1976. Since that time, the church has conducted separate services in Spanish. Reverend Penaloza remained for almost 15 years and was replaced by the Reverend Vivian Smart of Panama. Reverend Smart is also Vicar for St. Mary's Church in the West End of Chester. The Reverend Shaw retired in June of 1998. The Bishop of Pennsylvania named the Reverend George Master as interim Rector at that time. Reverend Master stayed at St. Paul's until a new rector could be called. The Reverend A. Kenneth J. Phillips was installed as Rector on September 20, 2000.

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2002 John A. Bullock III.

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This page last updated 02/24/07