Wednesday, September 20, 2017  

Christ Church Parish's 350th Anniversary


Christ Church Parish, in Middlesex County, one of the oldest colonial churches in Virginia, celebrated its 350th anniversary on April 24, 2016. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, The Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry, visited the church to mark the occasion.
Christ Church can actually trace its origins to 1642, when the first Church of England congregation, known as “Peankatanck,” was established near the present village of Hartfield. In 1652, another church, known as “Lancaster” was located  about 15 miles to the west. Both churches struggled for a dozen years, at times sharing the services of a minister, the Rev. Samuel Cole. In 1661, the Lancaster County court took notice that the two churches were too small to support themselves well enough to carry out their several governmental duties, or each their own minister. In September 1665, the Lancaster Church leaders, or vestry, decided to meet with the Peankatanck vestry to discuss joining the two parishes into one.
Thus it was on January 29, 1666 that the two vestries united into a single parish to be known as Christ Church, with a new building to be erected in the middle of what would become Middlesex County, in “ye small Indian field next ye head of Captain Brocas, his ground.” The men who brought about the merger of the parishes were leaders of the then sixty-year old colony of Virginia-Henry Corbin, Richard Perrott, Ralph Wormeley and Sir Henry Chichley, who would  later become lieutenant governor. Location of the new church was largely determined by its closeness to the Wormeley plantation at Rosegill, across Nimcock Creek from what is now the village of Urbanna, the chief port in the county.
 Ten years later the new Christ Church was caught up in Bacon’s Rebellion, an uprising of small landowners against, at first, marauding Indians and then the colony’s government itself. Many churches were burned and Christ Church’s minister, John Sheppard, was driven from the parish, though Christ Church was not burned. Because the building survived, Christ Church has its registry of marriages, births and burials reaching back to 1650 and its vestry minute book beginning in 1663 .
The wooden church building of 1666-67 lasted only about 40 years before termites, other boring insects and the weather made it no longer fit to hold services. In its place the church built a fine brick structure which has survived in part to this day. Over the next 170 years Christ Church existed as a typical colonial Church of England parish, employing only eight ministers, who were generally paid in tobacco, the Virginia currency. The churches carried out many governmental functions, including caring for the poor, surveying property boundaries and raising taxes. By the time of the Revolution, these duties had raised deep unhappiness among the colonists and the churches shared the antipathy felt toward the English king, George III. As a result there was a movement not only to disestablish the churches as a part of government, but to strip them on their lands, communion silverware and even their bronze bells.
Christ Church survived until 1821, though its rector, the Rev. Henry Heffernan, died in 1814. Over the next two decades the church building lay abandoned and the roof collapsed. It was not until 1841 that Bishop William Meade sent two recent Seminary graduates as missionaries to Christ Church. They were able to gather a handful of families of long-ago church members who rebuilt the structure which was re-consecrated in June, 1843.
For nearly a century the church struggled to survive, at one point able to pay its minister only $300 a year, a pittance even in 1900, with the Diocese Mission Fund helping to pay church expenses. After World War II the church fortunes looked up. In 1952, it became independent, no longer relying on diocesan aid. Since then the church has carried out a number of renovations restoring it as closely as possible to its Colonial glory.
Now it stands again as an active, vibrant congregation, with two services each Sunday, and as a monument to the faith of its founders, its restorers, and to all those who continue to make it a haven of faith in the 21st century.
This article is excerpted from a book-length history of Christ Church Parish, 1542 - 2016, published in May, 2016, on which Mr. White spent three years’ of research. Copies of the book are available from the church.