The Episcopal Church in Maryland is as old as the first English settlements on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in the 1630s. Beginning in 1692 the British government formally established the Church of England by requiring all householders to pay an annual church tax for the support of church buildings and the clergy. This was ended in 1776, but beginning in 1781 concerned laymen and clergy formed “The Protestant Episcopal Church” and elected Thomas Claggett as the first bishop to be consecrated in America.
In 1868, the counties of Maryland’s Eastern Shore became the Diocese of Easton. In 1895 the Diocese of Maryland was further divided; the District of Columbia and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Charles and St. Mary’s counties became the Diocese of Washington.
The St. John’s Episcopal Church (1809)
Located at the intersection of Congress and Union, St. John’s is the city’s oldest church. This church is also one of the oldest surviving structures in the city. The building is remarkable for its Flemish bond brick walls, its well executed round arched windows and its simple, early 19th century appearance.
In 1789, when George Washington traveled to Philadelphia for his inauguration as first President of the United States, the town that came to be known as Havre de Grace had approximately fifty houses. By 1805 a small chapel had been built well back 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 site of the present Roman Catholic 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 supposed to reach $5,000.” The matter dragged on for a number of years; but in 1809 the lottery was completed and the new church building immediately begun on the land which William Stokes gave to the church at the corner of Congress and Union Avenues, a corner which earlier he had envisioned as the site of 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!
Also, in 1809, Havre de Grace was constituted, at its request, as a separate parish from St. George’s although it was long dependant on the older parish in the services of its minister. However, actual completion of the church building was twice delayed, first by a windstorm and then by the British attack on Havre de Grace in 1813.
John O’Neill, the Defender, was a vestryman and other early parishioners included the Baileys, Coudons, Stumps, Hopkins, Rodgers of Sion Hill connection. During the attack of Havre de Grace by the British in May 1813, the church was spared but interior furnishings, including the windows were destroyed.
The little church struggled on for a number of years, continuing to share rectos with St. George’s, Perryman. In 1829 the two parishes fell into the energetic hands of Edward Young Higbee, who set himself the goal of completing the church. It was completed in 1831 with same four walls in which we pray today. One year later disaster occurred again when lightening struck the roof of the church and the fire gutted the interior.
Once more, the small congregation, spurred on by the zeal of Edward Higbee, began the work of the restoration. Not only was St. John’s completely rebuilt by 1833, but it was free of debt. The Bishop came to rededicate the church, to ordain the young minister, and to confirm a class of twenty-six, the largest of that time.
In 1835, a brick tower to carry a belfry was built and supplied with both a bell and a lightening rod. At a later date, this tower was demolished to be replaced by a semicircular sanctuary with a domed roof and a vestry room on one side and a choir room on the other. Eventually, land was purchased for a Parish Hall; and the home of a departing rector which had been rented, was purchased as a rectory was sold in order to build St. John’s Towers in 1967. In 1959, St. John’s celebrated it One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary with a yearlong celebration. At this time Miss Cornelia Meigs wrote a history of St. John’s Church; and this history has supplied most of the previous record.
As Miss Meigs wrote, “Winds had come indeed and storms had beaten upon it, but as God’s house it stands now much as they set out to build it (One hundred and fifty years ago) a noble old church now, a noble church then when it first began to come fully into being.”