Thursday, July 20, 2017  

Westmoreland's Cople Episcopal Parish Celebrates 350th Anniversary


On Sunday, May 25, 2014, The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, visited historic Cople Parish and conducted services at the 1706 Yeocomico Church on the 350th anniversary of the parish’s establishment on May 25, 1664.

“What an honor it was to have Bishop Jefferts Schori with us on this occasion,” said The Reverend R. Ellen White, Cople’s priest-in-charge. “She is an inspiring teacher and leader whose church members live in 16 countries with 110 dioceses.” Bishop Jefferts Schori’s background includes a doctorate in oceanography, hospice chaplain in Oregon, and bishop of Nevada. She is also an instrument-rated pilot.

Bishop Jefferts Schori was joined by The Right Reverend Shannon Johnston, bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church. It covers 38 counties in central and northern Virginia including the Northern Neck.

Former Virginia Delegate Tayloe Murphy Jr. has served as the senior warden of Cople Parish. “When I attend Yeocomico Church, I often think about the nation’s founders who worshiped in this same space in the 18th century,” he observed. Such figures included George Eskridge, guardian of a young Mary Ball before her marriage and the birth of son George Washington; Thomas and Hannah Lee, builders of Stratford Hall and the parents of the only two brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence; one of those sons, Richard Henry Lee, who also wrote the Leedstown Resolutions; and Robert “Councillor” Carter III, who became the First Emancipator.

Cople’s 1664 establishment by Westmoreland County set the Yeocomico and Nomini rivers as the parish’s borders. Its earliest leader was Sir Nicholas Spencer, secretary of the Virginia colony. He was a native of Cople in Bedfordshire, England. Thence, Cople Parish was named.

Yeocomico Church was first built in 1655 of oak timbers and was part of Chicacoan parish. It had the present “wicket” door, which is a small door within a larger door. In cold weather, this “wicket” helped retain heat without the need to open a big door. Following deterioration and fire, Yeocomico was rebuilt in 1706 on the original rectangular footprint with bricks fired in a nearby kiln. The existing front porch was added. The north chancel dates to the 1740s. The church takes its name from its nearby river. Yeocomico is an Algonquin word meaning four rooms, and this Potomac tributary has four branches. The church became part of Cople Parish upon the parish’s 1664 establishment.

Cople’s other colonial church takes its name from its adjoining river. The first Nomini Church on its current site was built in 1704 and was destroyed by British bombardments in 1814. The present church was built in the 1850s. A Virginia historical marker reads:

On 20 July 1814, Adm. Sir George Cockburn sent about a thousand marines ashore at Nomini Ferry to attack the Westmoreland County militia under the command of Lt. Col. Richard E. Parker. Parker’s Virginians bravely defended their positions but were soon outflanked by superior forces and forced to retreat to Westmoreland Court House (Montross). Before they left the next morning, the British marines burned and destroyed a number of houses and several plantations in the immediate area, such as Bushfield, and ransacked nearby Nomini Church.

Cople’s third church, Saint James at Tidwells on the Lower Machodoc Creek, was built as an ecumenical church in the 1890s and was known as Edgewater Church or Boycetown Chapel. It received its name on April 24, 1924, and became a part of Cople Parish. This happened during the rectorate of The Reverend Frederick Deane Goodwin, who would later become bishop of Virginia. One of the most charming churches in the Diocese of Virginia, it is believed to be the only Episcopal Church standing as close to a navigable waterway. The parish’s annual “Blessing of the Fleet” is held at Saint James.

In the colonial era, Yeocomico and Nomini Churches were part of the “established” Church of England. The Virginia colony did not recognize any other denominations. Cople Parish and its churches were the “centers of the universe” for civic, religious, social, caregiving, and educational activities. In many ways, the vestry served as a quasi-governmental body including the building of roads and was somewhat similar to today’s Board of Supervisors. Church attendance and tithing were both mandatory.

By the mid-1760s, British “taxation without representation” became the major concern of the colonists. A significant supporter of revolt was Cople’s rector, The Reverend Thomas Smith. He became chairman of Westmoreland Committee of Safety, a role commemorated on a Virginia historical marker at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Montross.

That marker reads:
At a public meeting here on June 22, 1774, resolutions of Richard Henry Lee offering aid to Boston, whose port had been closed by the British government, were adopted. Here, on May 23, 1775, the Westmoreland Committee of Safety passed resolutions denouncing the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, for seizing the colony’s powder supply at Williamsburg.
The American Revolution resulted in “disestablishment” and most Cople members wanted no continuing relationship with what they considered a “symbol of the King.” Consequently, both Yeocomico and Nomini churches were abandoned by the mid-1780s even though the American Episcopal Church had been established in 1785.

While Nomini Church was irreparably damaged during the War of 1812, that same war saved Yeocomico Church. With the British Navy sailing the Potomac, American soldiers from New Jersey had been assigned to patrol the river. Mosquitoes and unpleasant conditions led them to seek higher ground and fresh water — which they found on the grounds of the deteriorating Yeocomico Church. Lieutenant William Luttrell Rogers found an even deeper meaning when he first entered the site. While the building was no longer a house of worship, he could envision what it had meant to the founders and what it could mean in the future. He came back to Westmoreland in 1816, married Ann Ballentine Murphy of neighboring Ayrfield Plantation, worked to refurbish the church as time permitted, and finally saw an Episcopal rector serving in 1834. Today’s Cople Parish is Lieutenant Rogers’ vision of the future. A Virginia historical marker at the church commemorates this story.

The Most Reverend Henry St. George Tucker served as Presiding Bishop from 1938 to 1947 and was also Bishop of Virginia. A native of Richmond County, he visited his neighboring Cople Parish on a number of occasions.
“Community and civic leadership has remained a part of Cople Parish’s mission into the 20th and 21st centuries,” explained John Sydnor, another past senior warden. Parishioners have served as presidents and board members of The Menokin Foundation, Garden Clubs of the Northern Neck, The Haven, Westmoreland County Museum, and Northern Neck Land Conservancy. Nine Cople members have been president of the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society. Many more work as volunteers for Meals-on-Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, Northern Neck Free Health Clinic, and reading programs for elementary students. Cople’s Episcopal Church Women provide funds for dozens of worthy causes from proceeds earned by ECW’s annual ‘barn sale” and ham & oyster dinner.
Cople Parish hosted a supper party celebrating the 350th anniversary on the grounds of its Parish House on Coles Point Road at Hague on Saturday, May 24, 2014, with Bishop Jefferts Schori and Bishop Johnston as special guests. Parishioners and clergy from other Episcopal churches in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula joined dozens of Cople’s members for this event.

Throughout 2014, Cople has marked or will commemorate other church history including the 1924 naming of Saint James Church at Tidwells, the 1814 bombardment and the archaeological history of Nomini Church, and the Independence Day salute at Burnt House Field and Yeocomico Church. Other activities are the parish sponsorship of Relay for Life, a teacher salute at Cople Elementary School, participation in Kinsale Day and Montross Fall Festival, and exhibitions at the Westmoreland County Museum and the Northern Neck’s land conservancy and historical society.

The 350th anniversary will conclude on Sunday, October 5, 2014, at Cople’s annual homecoming at Yeocomico Church which will be attended by many who were formerly active but now live away from the Northern Neck. The guest preacher for that service will be The Reverend Charles Raymond Sydnor Jr., a Kinsale native who grew up in Cople Parish and served for three decades as rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg.