History of our church and community

Oct 172012

Here’s an interesting meditation by James Wood of the New Yorker on the early Book of Common Prayer. He explains how its cultural context shaped it and how it has shaped culture and language ever since.

Like many commentators, Wood depicts the famous 95 Theses as the sum total of Martin Luther’s German critique of the centralized church. This ignores many later and more nuanced Reformation work like the Augsburg Confession that influenced the Church in England.  So Woods has not written great work of ecumenical church history.  But that’s not a significant flaw in an Anglican-focused article.

 The Book of Common Prayer at 350  Posted by on Wed, 17-Oct-12 History, News Comments Off on The Book of Common Prayer at 350
May 082011

Mother’s Day Proclamation

Arise, then, women of this day!   Arise, all women who have hearts Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!  Say firmly:   “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,  Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”   From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.    It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.   As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,  let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.         Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.   Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace,  each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God.  In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects,  to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.


 Mothers’ Day Proclamation, 1870, by Julia Ward Howe  Posted by on Sun, 8-May-11 History Comments Off on Mothers’ Day Proclamation, 1870, by Julia Ward Howe
Apr 102011

At our last reflection on the parish’s early history, I spoke of the Rev. Matthias Plant, who served as rector of Queen Anne’s Chapel and later St. Paul’s Church until his death in 1753, a total of thirty-one years. He played a very large role in firmly establishing this church in the sparsely populated, and sometimes hostile, colonial territory that was Newbury. If we search for his voice from those times, we can find it in his journal and the surviving letters he sent back to the Society in London describing the state of the church and his activates as pastor.

In a letter dated October 25, 1727 he writes to the secretary of the Society, “Sir, I have returned you Answers to several particulars relating to the affairs of my church.”  He then goes on to methodically list the history of the building of the church, the number of “hearers” who frequent the Church (about 100 in total) and “Their condition of Fortunes” which he says is “like unto our ordinary Farmers who rent [for] £30 or £40 per annum. They commonly add some Trade to their farming.” and “In matter of Religion, [they are] Dissenters…I think there are about 6 families of Quakers in the Town.”

But it is later in the letter that a different voice comes through – “Negroe Slaves, one of them is desirous of Baptism, but denied by her Master, a woman of wonderful sense & prudent in matter of equal knowledge in Religion with most of her sex, far exceeding any of her own nation that ever yet I heard of.”

The words are hard on our ears: Negro, slaves, the comparison with those of her sex and nation, nothing said across those gender and racial divides. But the extraordinary thing is Rev. Plant grew to know this unnamed woman enough to know she had wonderful sense, meaning she was intelligent, and prudent, meaning she was wise. And he knew she was desirous of baptism which for an African in bondage meant a striving to personhood and a step away from being merely someone’s property. And he wrote to London in his report to note she was denied such a step by her master.

Now slavery was an accepted part of life from the very earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In fact, slavery was legally established in Massachusetts before any of the other thirteen colonies and lasted longest here than any other colony, including the southern states. The merchant princes who founded St. Paul’s on this land all held slaves and the church benefited as a result from their labors. Unlike the large farming plantations of the South, most households owned only one or two slaves who served the family and lived in close proximity; there never being enough in number to build a separate dwelling.

Rev. Plant himself owned slaves imported from the West Indies after being “seasoned” by the punishing work of the cane fields of the Caribbean Islands. This was the language and practice of the times. He noted in his journal dated June 22nd 1735, “I wrote to Mr. Salmon of Barbadoes to send me a negroe.” In 1751 he wrote his will granting his “Negroe girl Luce (Lucy)” who was baptized and married in Queen Anne’s Chapel to his wife Lydia upon his death and he offered freedom and seventeen acres of land to Lucy on her death “if the said widow Plant shall declare that Luce hath in all fidelity, both in word and deed behaved herself very respectfully as an honest and faithful servant…”

It is hard to put ourselves in Rev. Plant’s place and time on this issue. For us in our times there can be no apology for the brutality of slavery, only atonement. I think of Rev. Plant as a progressive but imperfect man, much as the church at that time was progressive in its desire to accept African slaves and African-Americans into the rites of baptism and marriage but imperfect in its tolerance and support of the daily abuses of human enslavement.

In the passage above where Rev. Plant’s expresses his knowledge and favorable recognition of the mind and personal qualities of an unnamed black female slave, I think lie some seeds of St. Paul’s formation as a church, imperfect to be sure but eventually a place where those who frequently find themselves outside the tight bonds of convention, like gay and lesbian folks, people of varying races and backgrounds, and the hungry looking for a meal and company, could eventually find a spiritual home not needing the permission of a master or others.

Bronson de Stadler

 History Minute #5 – Slavery in the Early Church  Posted by on Sun, 10-Apr-11 History Comments Off on History Minute #5 – Slavery in the Early Church
Apr 022011

At our last reflection on the parish’s early history, I spoke of the Rev. Matthias Plant, who served as rector of Queen Anne’s Chapel from 1722 and St. Paul’s Church from 1751 until his death in 1753, a total of thirty-one years; and of the ten years of acrimonious conflict between him and the vestry, resolved in his ultimate appointment as rector here in 1750. Well, we are not quite done with the Rev. Plant.

In the letters, journal and account books he fastidiously kept since arriving from Great Britain were written the daily activities and events of the parish, and of his own life. Commentary is written in a clear, precise and well-spoken style that reflected the busy life of an educated person. Aside from recording the seemingly endless deaths of infants and women who died in child birth, baptisms, marriages, funerals, local events, the cost of almost anything, and the regular conflicts within the parish and between various Christian groups in the area, Rev. Plant showed an interest in the natural world shared by other learned men of his generation.

From 1727 to 1741 he carefully recorded the occurrence of nearly two hundred large and small earthquakes in Newbury, including what came to be known as the “Great Earthquake of 1727”, estimated to be 5.6 magnitude. It toppled chimneys and split building in Boston, and caused the great Puritan preacher Cotton Mather to invoke the Revelation of John in his sermons to tell all that the voice of God had emerged from the bowels of the earth to warn sinners of their sorry state. Rev. Plant’s response was more tempered, as we might expect from an Anglican. He appointed a day of fasting and prayer, and recorded the following:

“October 29, 1727, being the Lord’s-Day, about forty minutes past ten the same evening, there came a great rumbling noise; but before the noise was heard, or shock perceived, our bricks upon the hearth rose up about three quarters of a foot; and seemed to fall down and loll the other way, which was in half a minute attended with the noise or burst. The tops of our chimneys, stone fences were thrown down; and in some places (in the lower grounds, about three miles from my house) the earth opened and threw out some hundred loads of earth of a different color from that near the surface, something darker than your white marl in England…. It continued roaring, bursting and shocking our houses all that night. Though the first was much the loudest and most terrible, yet eight more that came that night were loud, and roared like a cannon at a distance. It continued roaring and bursting twelve times in a day and night, until Thursday in the said week, and then was not so frequent; but upon Friday in the evening, and about midnight, and about break of day upon Saturday, three very loud roarings; we had the roaring noise upon Saturday, Sunday, Monday, about ten in the morning, although much abated in the noise.”

These observations were captured in a series of letters to the Rev. Dr. Bearcroft, the Secretary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in London, his sponsoring missionary organization. In 1742 these letters were formed into an article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, called Philosophical Transactions. The journal remainsin publication and is the world’s first science journal. Some theologians believe these earthquakes fueled the first Great Awakening in America, a religious revival of evangelicalism that swept through the Colonies and British Isles, and whose preachers, like the Anglican ordained George Whitefield, buried in the Old South Church here in Newburyport, appealed to churchgoers hearts and emotions through fervid, heartfelt, and some said theatrical, preaching to bring sinners to religious conversion, establishing a strong religious evangelical tradition that has flourished to our day.

These historical facts and recollections, interesting thought they are, seem far away from us now until we remember the way overpowering events can intrude into our own lives without any warning or the lives of others such as the people of Japan, just as they did in Rev. Plant’s time. Think of the red Tabernacle light that hangs from the wall in our sanctuary above the aumbry, the small recessed cupboard where Anglicans traditionally store consecrated wine and wavers. The light is a gift from the Bishop family in memory of their three and half year old son Joseph who died in a tragic, freakish accident involving a falling fireplace stone late at night on a Sunday in June 1992 during a California earthquake; or, think of the St. Paul’s church members who traveled to villages in El Salvador last year on their mission trip and experienced earth tremors, an unsettlingly common event in that part of the world; and, of course, we only have to remember the young faces of the youth from Haiti at the Les Petites Chanteurs Haitiens concert held here to raise money for their crumbled homes and destroyed land.

Matthias Plant speaks with us from long ago about overpowering, and often tragic, events as we continue our struggle for understanding through faith.


 History Minute #4 – Earthquakes in Newbury  Posted by on Sat, 2-Apr-11 History Comments Off on History Minute #4 – Earthquakes in Newbury
Feb 062011

February 20, 2011 – Visit St, Anna’s Chapel

Bring your coffee and hear the history and times of St. Anna’s Chapel, consecrated in 1863 during the Civil War. Meet with your guide Bronson de Stadler who will reveal: Who was St. Anna? What is the history of the stained Glass? What does the Chapel have in common with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City? Why is Jesus wearing a hat in the Good Shephard window? What secret spaces exist in the Chapel? Half our time will be spent talking and half visiting the Chapel.

 300th Anniversary Adult Forum  Posted by on Sun, 6-Feb-11 History, News Comments Off on 300th Anniversary Adult Forum
Jan 162011

For this third history minute I would like to tell you an anecdote about the Rev. Matthias Plant who served as rector of Queen Anne’s Chapel for thirty-one years from 1722 until his death in 1753. The story fits well with the themes of St. Paul’s origins we have been exploring: namely, a particular calling to this place, periods of conflict among various church factions and a pattern of reconciliation that led to renewal and allowed our parish to remain spiritually alive for three hundred years.


Rev. Plant was a highly educated man for his time.  Prior to becoming a missionary and traveling across the ocean to this then primitive place, he graduated from Jesus College at Cambridge University in England.  He preached for a full ten years before delivering his first sermon here in 1722.  He was described by the Governor General as a “sober and ingenious man”, sober meaning serious of purpose and ingenious meaning a clever, quick witted man as he indeed was.


After diligently building up his congregation and dealing with many conflicts over the years between the puritan or dissenting members of the congregation and the British born Anglicans, a group of merchants headed by Joseph Atkins and Michael Dalton secured land and erected a building on “the waterside” of Newbury to form a new church.  Rev. Plant supported the project and even donated £50 to a building fund, a considerable sum. The vestrymen graciously asked him to officiate as priest at this new St. Paul’s and he graciously accepted, alternating every other Sunday between the new church and Queen Anne’s Chapel on “the plains.”


All was well …but you may be able to guess what is coming next.  The vestrymen of St. Paul’s began to have second thoughts.  Rev. Plant was formally disinvited to serve and two anonymous letters of complaint about him were sent to the secretary of the Society, the Rev. Bearcroft.  We do not have the original letters but we do have Rev. Plant’s rebuttals.  In them he tells us the chief complaint was “his habit was not canonical” and he wore a “coloured handkerchief” around his neck instead of a band, a claim he adamantly denied. In fact, he goes on to tell us, “I never once in my whole time of preaching here, went to church to officiate without a band, nor do I remember the time when I ever wore a speckled handkerchief, nor any other about my neck in time of Divine Service…”  The matter of the speckled handkerchief was born, and it went on to produce ten years of conflict.


During those years Rev. Plant wrote in his diary about the many instances of rude and unchurch-like behavior he endured.  Senior warden Michael Dalton even traveled to London to ask for his removal.  Of course the more compelling story behind the speckled handkerchief, aside from personal conflict, was about establishing a new and legally separate parish, capturing the money to support it and splitting the rector’s salary then paid by the Society between the two; all earthly issues of power and money we might say.


In 1751 the free fight seemed to be over and all parties appeared to rest.  An accord was reached.  In June Rev. Plant was formally inducted into the rectorship of St. Paul’s Church according to the full rites and forms of the Church of England, and the parish remained one.


The matter of the “speckled handkerchief” ended quietly – as these conflicts so often do – so the work of the spirit could continue.



Bronson de Stadler

 History Minute #3 – Conflict with the Vestry in the Early Church  Posted by on Sun, 16-Jan-11 History Comments Off on History Minute #3 – Conflict with the Vestry in the Early Church
Dec 192010

St. Paul’s has the distinction of being the oldest continuous Episcopal parish in Massachusetts, and indeed one of the oldest in the country.  As you probably know it was founded in 1711 during the reign of Queen Anne of Great Britain under the tutelage of the Anglican missionary society with the long, tongue twisting name of The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, the foreign parts in this case being British America.  St. Paul’s founding was preceded by 25 years by King’s Chapel in Boston near the Common in 1686, the first Anglican parish in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  King’s Chapel, like St. Paul’s, had a tough time getting established due to the hostility of the surrounding puritan population who wanted no part of a “heretical” orthodox church from which they had come here to escape. These conflicts, social, economic and theological in nature, are a story in themselves for a later time. They confirm, as if we did not know it already, that the Christian family is no stranger to heated, sometimes ugly, conflict.


King’s Chapel, like so many churches in New England, adopted the ideals of Unitarianism after the game changing success of the War of Independence and the introduction of a democratically elected government by the people, casting off the enigmatic mysteries of the trinity and the supernatural divinity of Christ in favor of a theology based more solely on reason, conscience and moral character.  The distinction of the oldest continuous Episcopal parish passed to St. Paul’s. Although, in fairness, we should acknowledge we have competition. Christ Church Quincy in Quincy, Massachusetts was gathered in 1689 and organized as a parish in 1704, seven years before us. It too survived fires, relocation and persecution by the surrounding Puritans as did St. Paul’s. To complicate matters, their parish was divided into multiple entities whole ours remained whole. During the Revolutionary War its loyalist rector was suddenly lost while the faithful Rev. Bass continued to hold services throughout the conflict, albeit with the modification of no mention of the King, British government or the Royal Family, giving us some ground to claim an unbroken history of continuous service and operation. No doubt this gentlemanly diocesan debate will continue.


However, whatever distinction we hold, we might ask what accounts for our historic longevity?  What is it that made our parish forefathers and mothers remain faithful to this tradition of belief and worship?  What led our rector to maintain a path of comprise to keep our mission of faith alive?   What enduring values make us faithful to this day?


Bronson de Stadler

 History minute #2 – The Oldest Continuous Episcopal Church in Massachusetts  Posted by on Sun, 19-Dec-10 History Comments Off on History minute #2 – The Oldest Continuous Episcopal Church in Massachusetts
Nov 222010

On Nov. 21st, 2010, as part of our year of celebration for the 300th anniversary of St. Paul’s Church, we rededicated the current church building, first dedicated November 28, 1923.

 300th Anniversary — Rededication of the building.  Posted by on Mon, 22-Nov-10 History, News Comments Off on 300th Anniversary — Rededication of the building.
Nov 212010

As we sit in this beautiful light filled sanctuary, surrounded by its brilliant white, neoclassical interior, and we reflect on our 300th Anniversary theme Living Stones, Living Spirit we might also reflect on St. Paul’s architect, …the earthly architect that is, not the heavenly.  His name was William Graves Perry.  Born in Boston into a wealthy family and raised in Newburyport in a High Street mansion, he graduated from Harvard, MIT and the Paris L’Ecole des Beaux Arts by 1913.  He started his own architectural firm in 1922 after being approached to design a new St. Paul’s Church.  He already had a reputation behind him as a fine designer of private school, college and commercial buildings.  You can see his work at Phillips Andover, Harvard and Brown University among others.


For the new church he chose to retain the original shape and the structural exterior design of the 1800 church, only covered in granite to match the chapel and set back much farther from the road.  He kept the box pews only more compact, shortened the original wrap around balcony to the back wall so the windows could be enlarged to allow a flood of natural light.  He moved the original modest, low pulpit to the other side and created a grand wine glass affair that set the priest high above the congregation.


After St. Paul’s, he went on to be chosen in 1927 as an architect in Williamsburg, Virginia where the Rockefellers were about to undertake perhaps the largest historic restoration project in America.  Perry stayed on as an architect at Colonial Williamsburg until 1953, recreating many of its lost colonial era buildings.  He reappeared in Newburyport in the 1970s when the downtown was threatened with demolition.  He lent his name, his talents and his prestige to the cause of its survival and eventual restoration.


We can thank him and many others for this light, ethereal place where we come together to experience the living spirit.


Bronson de Stadler

 History Minute #1 – The Architect of St. Paul’s Church  Posted by on Sun, 21-Nov-10 History Comments Off on History Minute #1 – The Architect of St. Paul’s Church