Located at the intersection of Congress and Union, St. John’s is the Havre de Grace’s oldest church. This church is also one of the oldest surviving structures in the city.
Founding of the Episcopal Church of Maryland
The Episcopal Church in Maryland is one of the nine original diocese of the Episcopal Church and traces its roots back to Captain Joh Smith, who oversaw the first Christian worship along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. Beginning in 1692 the British government formally established the Church of England in the Colonies by requiring all householders to pay an annual church tax for the support of church buildings and the clergy. This ended in 1776 with the American Revolution, but in 1780 at a meeting in Chestertown, MD, concerned laymen and clergy formed the Diocese of Maryland and elected Thomas Claggett as the first bishop to be consecrated in America.
Founding of St. John’s Episcopal Church
In 1789, when George Washington traveled to Philadelphia for his inauguration as first President of the United States, there were approximately fifty houses in the town. By 1805 a small chapel had been built set far away from the main highway, which was no more than a country road full of ruts, muddy in winter and dusty in summer. The chapel, not yet of size or stature to be called a church, enjoyed irregular services by the Rector of St. George’s Church, Perryman, nine miles to the south. A report of the Diocese in 1806 notes that the chapel was unfinished at that time; but a storm blew down the chapel walls when the roof had been removed for repairs and that the chapel had not been rebuilt. However, the churchyard continued in use as a burial ground as late as 1836. This earlier chapel apparently occupied the present site of the Roman Catholic Church.
Building of the Church
In 1802, the legislature authorized a sale of lottery tickets for Havre de Grace with the provision that “a church parsonage house and market house were to be erected with the proceeds expected to reach $5,000.” In 1809 the lottery was completed and construction of the new church immediately began on the land which William Stokes donated. This site, Stokes had previously envisioned as the location for the U.S. Capitol building. Havre de Grace was once considered for the site of the National Capitol, missing this great honor by one vote in the Senate! Later that year, Havre de Grace requested to become a separate parish even though it long depended upon St. George’s for the support of its Rector.
Construction of the church was twice delayed, first by a significant windstorm and then by the British attack on Havre de Grace in 1813.
British Attack on Havre de Grace
On the morning of May 3, 1813, the British Royal Navy under the direction of Rear Admiral George Cockburn attacked Havre de Grace. Four hundred troops pillaged the town, burning all but three buildings including the newly constructed St. John’s Church. Vestryman, John O’Neill, was captured and taken to the British HMS Maidstone after his heroic manning of a cannon at the lighthouse. During the attack the church’s interior furnishings, including the windows were destroyed by the British troops.
The Young Church
The little church struggled on for a number of years, continuing to share rectors with St. George’s, Perryman until an enthusiastic young minister named Edward Young Higbee came to lead the two parishes. In 1831, the church was finally completed but unfortunately, one year later disaster occurred when lightning struck the roof of the church and fire gutted the interior. Once more the small congregation set to work to reconstruct the interior of the church and in one short year, they not only completed the reconstruction but were also debt free. In celebration, the Bishop of Maryland came to rededicate the church and ordain the young minister. That year the Bishop also confirmed an especially big confirmation class of twenty-six parishioners, the largest of that time.