St. John’s Episcopal Church, America’s Oldest Anglican Parish in Continuous Existence, Celebrates 400th Anniversary this Year

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Hampton, Virginia parish commemorates historic achievement with special events and activities all year long.

Hampton, Virginia's St. John's Church is America’s Oldest Anglican Parish in continuous existence.

In 2010, America’s Oldest Anglican (Episcopal) Parish in continuous existence will commemorate its 400th anniversary, complete with special events, activities, and services throughout the year. Established in 1610 when English colonists settled at Kecoughtan, the parish has survived four centuries of sometimes turbulent history in order to celebrate this fortunate milestone.

In 1610, English settlers established a community and church at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, three years after the colonization of Jamestown. A small group of civilians and soldiers moved to the site located south and inland in order to escape the famine and disease that had plagued the original colony. There these settlers established St. John’s first parish site (1610-1623), which was located near present-day LaSalle and Chesapeake Avenues in Hampton. In 1623, the settlement had moved east of the Hampton River and a second parish site (1623-1667) was established on these grounds (what is now Hampton University).

The second site was abandoned in 1667 and that year the third parish site (1667-1728) was constructed on the west side of the Hampton River. In 1698, the vestry levied 400 pounds of tobacco to William Bailey to tear down the second parish church and to move the pews into the courthouse. Like the previous structure, the third church was a wood building and was used for about 60 years until it was moved to its current location. During the 18th century activity Hampton commerce and community centered on its busy port, (now Downtown Hampton) and the fourth (and final) parish site (1728-PRESENT) was constructed. Completed in 1728, the cruciform building was built with the sole purpose of being closer to the population base. During both the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, the British heavily damaged the church. In 1861, during the Civil War, the church was burned and only its walls remained standing. However, contributions were raised at the war’s end to restore and rebuild the sanctuary.

In 2010, St. John’s Episcopal Church will celebrate all four centuries, all four parishes, with highlighted events, including special services, activities, receptions, and one very special community project entitled Sole to Soul: Walk 400 Miles in Celebration of 400 Years. St. John’s is asking interested parties to form teams of walkers/hikers with the objective of accumulating 400 miles per team. Walkers are encouraged to seek pledges for miles walked, with the pledges going toward a cause of that particular team’s choosing. For information and pledge forms, contact St. John’s Church as 757/722-2567 or by email at office@stjohnshampton.org.

On July 9-11, the City of Hampton, Virginia will host its 400th Anniversary Celebration Weekend, complete with the Blackbeard Pirate Festival, dedication of Hampton’s historical marker series (created specifically for the 400th anniversary and produced in partnership with Civil War Trails), and events at The American Theatre and Hampton History Museum. St. John’s Church will host several activities this weekend, including a Celebration Dinner at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 10 at the Crowne Plaza Hampton Marina Hotel. The Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, USA, The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts- Schori will attend as a special guest. The cost to attend the dinner is $30.00 per person.

On Sunday, July 11, St. John’s Episcopal Church will celebrate mass with Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts-Schori and The Rt. Rev. Herman Hollerith, IV, Diocese of Southern Virginia. Many of Hampton’s city leaders will also be in attendance. The service takes place at 10:00 a.m. Seating will be conserved for members of St. John’s parish, with supplemental seating and simulcast available in St. John’s Fellowship Hall.

Following the service, the Virginia Air & Space Center will host a reception with a special anniversary cake sculpted in the form of St. John’s Church. The cake will be prepared by Charm City Cakes, the bakery featured on Food Network’s reality television program entitled “Ace of Cakes.” Charm City Cakes has decorated and designed cakes for Superbowl XLI, Baltimore Zoo, and the premiere of “Kung-Fu Panda”, among countless others. The reception begins at 12:00 noon and is free and open to the public.

St. John’s Episcopal Church is open to visitors weekdays 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. and Saturdays 9:00 a.m. – noon. Tours may be arranged by contacting the church office at 757/722-2567.

For more information on St. John’s 400th anniversary, visit their website at http://www.stjohnshampton.org, call 757/722-2567, or email office@stjohnshampton.org. For further information on other Hampton events and programs regarding the city’s 400th anniversary, contact the Hampton Visitor Center at 757-727-1102 or visit http://www.hampton400.com.

Other St. John’s Episcopal Church Points of Interest:

  •     The oldest grave located at the church is of Captain Willis Wilson who died in 170l.
  •     Near the gates at the southwest corner of the churchyard are markers describing the remnants of the original enclosure wall dating from about 1759.
  •     Next to the south wall of the church stands a memorial to Virginia Laydon, the first surviving child born in the New World to English parents (born 1609). Laydon’s parents were members of the parish.
  •     Inside the building one can see the Pocahontas window given in 1887, in part, by Native American students from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now Hampton University. The school was the first in the country to accept Native American students.
  •     On the chapel wall to the right of the small altar is an aumbry in which consecrated bread and wine are reserved. The door panel consists of pieces of 13th century stained glass from St. Helen’s Church, Willoughby, England. This is the parish in which Captain John Smith was baptized.
  •     The most cherished possession of the parish is the communion silver made in London in 1618 for the church community in Smith’s Hundred. When an Indian massacre destroyed that community, farther up the James River in 1622, Governor Yeardly took the chalice and patens to Jamestown. They were given to Elizabeth City Parish (St. John’s Episcopal Church) in 1627 and are still used on major feast days each year. It is the oldest communion silver in continuous use in the area of the United States colonized by the English.
  •     The parish retains its old vestry book dating to 1751, its large colonial Book of Common Prayer, a 1637 Book Prayer, and a 1599 “breeches” Bible. These, along with other artifacts and a photographic collection may be seen in the museum (located in the parish house building, built 1889, adjacent to the church).

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