St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
On June 21, 1794, a small group of people met in the home of Abram Harris and elected six trustees to organize a church in Georgetown, which was then in the process of becoming St. Paul’s Parish.
They were Roland Bevin, Edmond Dickerson, Abram Harris, Philips Kollock, Isaac Wilson and Warren Jefferson.
The history of St. Paul’s runs parallel to that of the history of the Town of Georgetown during the first half of the century.
Up until now the formalization of the Mason & Dixon Line in 1775, what is now the State of Maryland claimed the western half of present-day Sussex County.
On January 29, 1791, an Act was passed authorizing a group of ten commissioners to find and purchase one hundred acres of land in the geographic center of the new enlarged county for the purpose of building a courthouse and a jail.
The successive buildings of courthouses and churches were constructed by the same men, of the same materials and, approximately of the same style and dimensions. They also shared in common the money raised by three lotteries which the General Assembly authorized for their common benefit.
In the Beginning
The southwestern boundary line between Delaware and Maryland having been finally ratified in 1775, more than doubled the area of Sussex County. Residents clamored for a more central county seat. In response to increasing pressure, the General Assembly in 1791 passed a series of Acts ordering the removal of the Courts from Lewes and appointed commissioners to select and purchase a site upon which to erect a courthouse and jail and plot a town.
In all matters concerning this project, the instructions contained in these Acts of the General Assembly were most explicit.
The eight commissioners led by George Mitchell were instructed to purchase not more than 100 acres of land on the site of James Pettyjohn’s “Old Field”, or two and one half miles from Ebenezer Pettyjohn’s house to the east of it.
An attempt was made to purchase Ebenezer Pettyjohn’s farm but he refused to sell because he did not want his children to grow up in a town.
The town has since “grown up” to be Ebenezer’s farm.
In May, 1791, 50 acres of land were conveyed to the commissioners by Rowland Bevins, 25 acres from Abram Harris, and one acre from Joshua Pepper.
It is well to keep the names of Bevins and Harris in mind; both were members of the first vestry of St. Paul’s Parish who purchased two of the first 21 lots that were sold in the newly plotted town. It was in the home of Abram Harris the commissioners met and where the purchase was made, and where all elections and meetings were held until the completion of the new courthouse.
Historians do not agree on the exact date of its accomplishment, but records show that the first session of the courts was held in 1793, when the whipping post and pillory were removed from Lewes.
By Act of the Assembly the place was called Georgetown in recognition of the leadership of George Mitchell in promoting the project.
The commissioners were instructed to build the courthouse of wood and of the same size as the one in Lewes. There was to be a jail of brick or stones, and until the buildings were completed, elections were to be held at the house of James Pettyjohn in Broadkiln.
From this it would appear the legislators were not well informed of the possibility of making the Pettyjohn purchase and there is a tradition that what is now the center of the town at that time was called “Dale’s Cross Roads.”
Immediately after the purchase of the land, Rhoads Shankland proceeded to survey the site and plot the town. The following is his report the the General Assembly in 1792.
“In or near the center of town is a square, 100 yards each way for public use. One half acre each on the northeast corner is reserved for a courthouse and a jail. The streets running southwest and northeast are Pine, Market and Laurel; the alleys are Strawberry and Cooper. At right angles from the west are Race, Bedford and Front Streets. The alleys are North, Love, Cherry and South Lanes.
The lots are 60 feet front and 120 back, each having an outlet to a street or alley. Eighteen lots are laid out on the north end of the square.”
The Birth of St. Paul’s Church
The formal organization of the parish took place June 21, 1794 when the six trustees were elected and acquired a lot on the corner of Front and Pine Streets upon which to erect a place of worship.
In 1795 the Rev. James Wiltbank of Lewes conducted services in the new courthouse where infrequent services were subsequently held during the next ten years. Apparently no attempt was made to build a church on the Front and Pine Street lot, and it was sold in 1806 to William Russell.
Meanwhile a small group of devoted women of the Methodist faith succeeded in having a crude chapel constructed in that vicinity. The interior was unfinished and the congregation sat on rough benches while listening to the sermons, which in those days were rather lengthy.
A small town was now emerging around the courthouse. With the coming of the courts also came the necessity of caring for the people who came with and to them. Soon there was a tavern on almost every corner of the town. Small shops opened to supply the simple needs of the community and modest homes were being erected in ever increasing numbers.
In 1804 the present site of St. Paul’s was purchased and a frame building was begun. The congregation was small and had great difficulty in collecting sufficient funds for finishing the building. In 1805 the legislature passed an Act enabling the vestry to raise the sum of $1,500 by lottery in order to complete the building and enclose the burial grounds. This was not fully accomplished until ten years later.
However, on St. Paul’s Day, January 25, 1806, the church was dedicated by The Rev. Hamilton Bell, who at that time was also serving St. Peter’s in Lewes.
Notwithstanding the questionable methods by which St. Paul’s came into being, it played a very important role in the history of the Diocese of Delaware.
The Discouraging Years
Twenty long years were to pass before St. Paul’s was completed. The pages of its history are blank. Those of the whole church in Delaware are filled with despair. The break with the Mother Church in England was particularly disastrous to the people in the “Forests of Sussex” where loyalist sentiment was strong. Here the Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Lands had sent missionaries who had been ordained in England. They had built chapels in the forests at the headwaters of the streams which, before completed became too small to hold the congregations so that services had to be held under the trees. Men, women and children were baptized by the hundreds. These people came from Virginia and Maryland and were strong in their love of the church.
Then came the revolution with all its bitterness and strife and divided loyalties. Some of the ministers remained at their posts and suffered great hardships and privations, but most of them fled.
The Protestant Episcopal Church of America was being born with but five of the states taking an interest in the event. Here the Puritan principles of the North clashed with the Anglican sentiments of the South over the contents of a new Prayer Book and other matters concerned with a more Democratic administration of the church in America.
In Delaware the church was under the jurisdiction of Bishop White of the Diocese of Pennsylvania who officiated at times in Wilmington; but it was the Assistant Bishop Onderdonck who undertook the task of supplying the Churches of Kent and Sussex with ministers. At St. Paul’s there had been only two who had held services in the unfinished church that had been dedicated in 1806.
The second war with England intervened and activities at Lewes had for a time affected the peaceful pursuits in the vicinity. However, in 1827 another lottery was authorized to raise $10,000 to build am academy, a Masonic Hall, and complete the Episcopal Church.
Lotteries were the only means in which to raise money. Georgetown was a county seat and was governed by a Board of Commissioners who were in turn governed by the State Legislature. All activities centered around the Courthouse. Industry was confined to the artisans who were employed in the construction of buildings, vehicles, and implements of practical necessity.
Church affairs began to take on a new life. Bishop Onderdonck and his missionaries had penetrated Sussex County and St. Paul’s listed five ministers as holding services during the next nine years. They were not resident rectors, but were sent down by the Bishop of Pennsylvania to officiate in the many parishes that were without a resident pastor.
Often they served Milford, Lewes and Georgetown successively and even simultaneously, while caring for other parishes. One Rev. Higabee reported to the Convention that he had six churches in his charge. In the records of Rev. John McKim, we find that he was officiating at baptisms, marriages and funerals in private homes, school houses and chapels at Concord, Seaford, Laurel, Millsboro, Prince George’s, St. George’s, and St. Peter’s at Lewes, while still pastor of St. Paul’s. He also taught in the academies of Milford and Georgetown.
It was doubtless owing to these conditions that McKim was led to forge an aggressive campaign for a separate Diocese in Delaware, which ultimately led to the election of Rev. Alfred Lee to the first Bishop of the State of Delaware.
In 1839 Bishop Onderdonck reported to the Convention that the lower half of the Diocese was entirely without ministers; that no church south of Smyrna was supplied with a resident rector.
A Convention was held in the spring of 1841 at St. Paul’s Church at which there were seven clergy present and 23 laymen, representing 12 parishes. The Bishop of Pennsylvania presided and presented the Rev. Alfred Lee in nomination and ably assisted by Rev. McKim, engineered his unanimous election to Bishop of Delaware.
Six months later the General Convention met in St. Paul’s Church in New York and was attended by four clergy and one layman from Delaware. This layman was Samuel Paynter of Lewes who was for many years a most ardent and faithful churchman.
The Convention approved the consecration of Bishop Lee and the ceremonies were held in St. Paul’s Chapel October 12, 1841. On the 21st of October, Alfred Lee took his seat in the House of Bishops, whereupon he immediately proceeded to visit every parish in his Diocese. While in Georgetown he confirmed seven persons, two of whom were members of St. Paul’s Vestry.
A New Building is Constructed
In 1843 the old building was removed to make room for a new brick structure which was completed in 1844 and consecrated by the Bishop on November 19th of the same year.
The building was 38 by 48 feet in dimension. There were three galleries on three sides and a raised pulpit with a canopied sounding board on the fourth side. In front of the pulpit there was a clerk’s desk.
When Rev. John McKim took up residence in the small house across the way, he had already spent six laborious years in Sussex County. Nine ministers had preceded him; all of them transient except Parson Bell who dedicated the first church.
During his incumbency, St. Paul’s Parish achieved a state of stability because of his outstanding leadership not only in the church, but in the community in which he lived during 63 years of his life. He too came from Pennsylvania, as did Bishop Lee, and together they revived the church in Delaware which at that time was in danger of becoming extinct.
In 1867, Rev. McKim resigned his rectorship of St. Paul’s to devote himself to missionary work. In 1893 he was appointed consul to Nottingham, England by William Henry Harrison and upon his return retired; although he continued to officiate from time to time within a few years of his death in 1908 at the age of 96 His remains are in St. George’s Churchyard.
One who knew him well wrote: “He was a thoroughly classical and mathematical scholar whose learning was accurate, varied and extensive. His was a singularly pure life of gentle manners and cultivated taste and should be held in grateful memory as long as the parish shall have a history.”
During the four years following the resignation of Rev. McKim, Rev. Charles de L. Allen was rector of St. Paul’s. There is no record of any historic happenings at this time.
The Rev. Benjamin J. Douglass came in 1871 and inaugurated a new era of activity. The church building had fallen into disrepair and by 1881 a new one was ready for occupancy. The Sunday School Chapel was also built by Rev. Douglass, though it didn’t become the property of the parish until 1886.
Rev. Douglass resigned in the summer of 1884 because of ill health and overwork from his long and active service over a period of 13 years. He died soon after and his remains are interred in St. Paul’s churchyard.
Rev. James C. Kerr came to St. Paul’s from Milford in 1885. While incumbent for only a year, he is said to have improved and beautified the interior of the building, installed a pipe organ, and added a chapel to the property of the church which was now valued at $6,000. There were 53 communicants and a flourishing Sunday School under the superintendence of Mr. Edwin R. Paynter.
The year 1887 was one of crisis as the Diocese had no bishop and St. Paul’s had no full time minister. Rev. Louis Wells preached for a few months and Rev. Kerr has left a record of baptisms and marriages up to 1889. Rev. John Leighton McKim, as his father had done before him, attended to the pressing needs of the parish and became resident minister in 1889.
Again Delaware went to Pennsylvania for a bishop, and in 1888 elected Rev. Leighton Coleman rector of the Church of the Redemption in Sayre, Pennsylvania to the Bishopric of the Diocese.
Bishop Coleman was consecrated on St. Luke’s Day, 1888. The following year he visited St. Paul’s. His was a robust, virile and original character, with a vision and experience beyond the ordinary. He died December 14, 1907.
Rev. John Leighton McKim remained at St. Paul’s until his resignation in 1894. He and his two daughters Helen and Marian became an integral part of the church and community during the five years of their residency.
Durith the next 14 years, seven ministers came to St. Paul’s, none of whom remained longer than two years.
Then, in 1908, Rev. D. Wilmot Gateson came with his mother and two sisters. Rev. Gateson was young, ardent and devoted. The social life of the parish and the town of Georgetown was lifted to new heights and many improvements were made in the church property. Rev. Gateson resigned in 1912.
After a lapse of two years without a minister, Rev. Samuel D. VanLoan came to St. Paul’s. He too was a cultured and talented saintly man whose influence was widely spread. Under his artistic inspiration the church grounds were beautified. He had the shrubbery planted, a good pipe organ installed, and being a musician, continued the improvement of the musical uplift that Rev. Gateson had begun.
After 13 years of devoted service, Rev. VanLoan resigned, but continued to live in Georgetown until his death.
Three years followed with no full time rector at St. Paul’s. “Father VanLoan”, as he was reverently called, still officiated at baptisms and marriages, kept his interest in young folks, and made his benign influence felt by all who came in contact with him.
Rev. Martin Bram came to St. Paul’s in 1929.