Each parish has its own particular story from its beginnings to the present time. In Southern Virginia, however, there are many parishes and churches dating back to the mid- to late 1600s. Below is a brief history of a selection of these churches. The history of many of these churches is intertwined with the history of Virginia settlement, the struggle for Independence, birth of the United States, and the Civil War.
St. John’s Church, Hampton
July 9, 1610, marks not only the founding of Hampton, but also the oldest Protestant, English speaking parish in America, St. John’s Episcopal Church. The church building moved three times before settling at its current location in 1728. The 1728 church building has seen its share of hardship. During the War of 1812, British troops turned the church into barracks for soldiers and the churchyard into a slaughtering pen for their animals. After the War the church was restored with great effort only to be burned during the Civil War when the confederate troops razed the entire town of Hampton so it would not fall into Union hands. By the end of the war, one of the only surviving structures in the city was the walls of St. John’s.
Soon after the war, members of the church began a national campaign to restore the building using the brick walls that had survived the fire. Both confederate and union sympathizers supported this rebuilding effort. While St. John’s is not the oldest church building in Virginia, it is the oldest English speaking, worshipping community in North America and continues to worship and serve its community today.
Martin’s Brandon Parish, Disputanta
Martin’s Brandon Parish was established around 1618 across the river from Jamestown. John Martin, who was one of the first colonists to arrive from England in 1607, received a patent for 5,000 acres from the British king. The land was named Brandon after his wife’s family name, and Martin granted 200 acres to the parish of Martin’s Brandon. Following the Revolutionary War, the church saw a period of decline after financial support from the government ceased. The church building was abandoned, though the congregation survived. The current church building was constructed in 1856.
Hungars Cure Parish, Machipongo
Hungars Cure Parish was established in 1623. There are two parishes within this cure, Hungars and Christ Church, each with their own church building. Hungars is one of the oldest parishes in Virginia and has worshipped in three buildings since its founding. The current Hungars church was built in 1742, and Christ Church Eastville was built in 1828. Following the Revolutionary War, Hungars church went unused for about forty years. The building has since been repaired and renovated several times.
Historic St Luke’s, Smithfield
Local legend suggests that the church building was completed in 1632. Architectural historians, archaeologists, and historians, however, have examined the evidence and suggest a completion date between 1685 and 1687. Regardless, St. Luke’s is the oldest, surviving church building in Virginia. The exterior is mainly original brick.
In the early 1800s, parishioners of St. Luke’s moved to a new church building in the town of Smithfield. In 1836, the first service was held in Christ Church. However, the old church was secured from intruders and the building continued to be used for a monthly service. In 1885, Christ Church began renovations to both Christ Church and St. Luke’s. St. Luke’s was rededicated on November 14, 1894. Extensive renovations of St. Luke’s began in 1950, and the church was reopened to the public in 1957. Since 1953, Historic St. Luke’s Restoration has managed and operated Historic St. Luke’s in addition to preserving its collections, documents, history, and surroundings. Christ Church holds Sunday morning service at St. Luke’s on fifth Sundays of the month and at other times throughout the year.
Grace Church, Yorktown
The first church in York-Hampton Parish was built near Wormley’s Creek in 1634. From approximately 250 Anglican churches built during the Colonial Period, Grace Church is one of the few that has survived the perils of the frontier.
During the Revolutionary War, Grace Church was severely damaged when Lord Cornwallis’ soldiers occupied the church before the British surrendered to General Washington on October 19, 1781. In 1814, the “Great Fire” destroyed York-Hampton Church, and services were conducted in parish homes until the 1840s. The church was reconstructed in 1847 using the original walls and was rededicated as Grace Episcopal Church the following year. During the Civil War, Grace was occupied by both Confederate and Union military forces and again suffered heavy damage.
In 1927, extensive repairs were completed under the direction of W.A.R. Goodwin. In 2011, The Grace Historical Church Preservation Foundation began another exterior and interior renovation of the historic sanctuary which led to another rededication in 2016.
St. George’s Parish, Pungoteague
St. George’s Parish is comprised of two churches, St. George’s, Pungoteague and St. James’, Accomac. Services began in St. George’s parish in 1636 even though the first church building was not built until 1676. The church was badly damaged during the Civil War when used as a stable by the federal troops and was without a minister until the 1870s. In 1880 the church was repaired using the original bricks. St. George’s is the third oldest church in the United States and the oldest on the Eastern Shore. St. James’ first building was built in 1767. The current building was erected in 1838. The interior walls and ceiling are painted in a distinctive trompe l’oeil style, the only example of the work of Jean G. Potts that has survived.
Old Donation Church, Virginia Beach
Old Donation is the third Lynnhaven Parish Church and is the oldest Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach. Records show that the parish’s first church services were held in 1637 in the home of Adam Thoroughgood and the first church building was constructed on his land in 1639 The church built a new building in 1692, and a third in 1736. Princess Anne’s population center gradually shifted to Kempsville on the banks of the Elizabeth River. Old Donation Vestry held their last meeting in March 1856.
After the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a law that churches and chapels formerly owned by the Church of England and not used within a calendar year, reverted to the ownership of the Commonwealth, various parishioners from Emmanuel Episcopal Church made annual pilgrimages to the church to hold services. In 1882, a fire almost destroyed the church and the Reverend Thurmer Hoggard IV (1819-1902) became the leader of the parish. In 1911 an organization was founded to raise funds to rebuild Old Donation. Through the enthusiastic and tireless efforts of the Rev. Richard Alfriend and Judge B. D. White, construction began in 1912. Restoration of the church was completed in 1916, and Old Donation was, once again, open for services.
St. Paul’s Church, Petersburg
The history of St. Paul’s, Bristol Parish, is very much the history of Petersburg and the surrounding area itself. Both began on the banks of the Appomattox River during the first half of the 17th century. Before the Civil War, Petersburg grew into a large trading port for tobacco and then into an important manufacturing town.
Bristol Parish was formed by statute of the Virginia General Assembly around 1642, and the first church was known as “Citie Church.” In 1737, the Brick Church on Wells’ Hill was built and became the first building called St. Paul’s. The congregation moved from the Brick Church on Wells’ Hill to the new St. Paul’s on Courthouse Hill between 1805 and 1806. At this time Petersburg was a thriving trade center and most of its population worked and lived between the Appomattox and present-day Washington Street. The congregation enjoyed the use of this church until 1837 when the town council purchased the church to use the site for a courthouse. Another St. Paul’s was built in 1839 but was destroyed by fire in 1854. The present St. Paul’s was built in 1856.
St Paul’s, Suffolk
In 1642, the Suffolk area, then part of Nansemond County, was divided into three parishes. Today’s downtown region was known as the Parish of the Upper Nansemond. Five church buildings, in five distinct locations, have served St. Paul’s throughout its history. The earliest church is believed to have been constructed in 1643 on the banks of the Nansemond River, just north of today’s downtown area. Around 1753, the parish moved downtown. The present, 1895 Gothic-style church building contains many artifacts from St. Paul’s history that represent not only the long history of building faith in downtown Suffolk but also the historical struggles of our nation. Major additions and alterations since then have incorporated these pieces. The chapel, added in 1989, includes wooden tablets displaying the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Ten Commandments. Two Queen Anne-style display cases hold important historical pieces, including a bible dating back to 1754. To celebrate the 375th anniversary of the parish in 2017 parishioners organized historical documents and wrote narratives of important parts of St. Paul’s parish life. These materials are now displayed in the 1642 Coffee Lounge.
Bruton Parish Church, Williamsburg
Bruton Parish was formed in 1674 from the merger of two colonial parishes — Marston Parish in York County and Middletown Parish. It took its name from the town of Bruton in Somerset, England. In 1678, Col. John Page promised funds and land for a church and churchyard. The first brick church was completed in 1683 and lay northwest of the present building. After 1699, when the capital of Virginia moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg, a new church building was needed to accommodate an expanding population. The third and present building was completed in 1715.
After the American Revolution, Bruton Parish entered a period of decline in membership and deterioration of the building. In 1840, a remodeling effort moved the altar to the west end and stripped the interior of its colonial furnishings.
The restoration of 1905–1907 partially returned the church to its colonial appearance, moving the altar back to the east end of the building. In the following three decades, more efforts were made to restore the building to its original colonial appearance. That restoration was concluded in 1939.
St. Luke’s Church, Blackstone
Nottoway Parish was formed in 1749 from Raleigh Parish in Amelia County. At that time, there were two Colonial churches in the Parish, one near the present-day Blackstone and the other near what is now Crewe. From 1795 until 1856, there were no churches of the Episcopal denomination in the Parish. The Rev. Churchill Gibson of Grace Episcopal Church, Petersburg is credited with reviving the Episcopal presence in Nottoway Parish. His efforts led to the establishment of St. Luke’s in 1859 in Blackstone at a site a half mile to the west of the present location. It is said that the name “St. Luke’s” was selected on account of the large number of physicians in the congregation, as there were supposedly seven among the original contributors. Land for the present site at the corner of Main and Church Streets was purchased in 1882. It would be some time before construction began, however, as two additional churches were first completed in the Parish: Holy Innocents in Burkeville in 1885 and Gibson Memorial in Crewe in 1893. Of the three, only St. Luke’s survives today.
St. John’s Church, Halifax
In 1752, Antrim parish was established by the Governor of the Colony of Virginia. It was named after Antrim in Northern Ireland, an area where the Church of England was strong. In 1828, St. Mark’s was established. The congregation outgrew the small St. Mark’s Church, and St. John’s was completed in 1844. The church walls are solid brick and are covered in stucco and scored to simulate blocks of granite. This process, known as roughcasting, was introduced to the area by Dabney Cosby, Sr., who worked with Thomas Jefferson on the construction of the University of Virginia.
Trinity Church, Portsmouth
When the founder of Portsmouth laid out the town in 1752, he named one of the blocks “Church Square.” Trinity Church was built on Church Square in 1762 and continues to stand there today. Trinity Church has many interesting notes in its history. After the Revolutionary War, the north wall of the church was rebuilt with granite from the British fortification raised by then Major General Benedict Arnold. The bell in the tower was cracked ringing the victory at Yorktown.
While the church has many memorable features, the stained glass windows tell the story of the history of Trinity. The three windows on the east and northeast were installed in 1859, and the “Catholic” imagery demonstrates Trinity’s adherence to the Oxford Movement. The middle window was the original entrance to the church, and pews were painted black in this portion of the nave for the free and enslaved African Americans in the congregation. The enslaved man who was a hero of the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1855 was freed and became Verger at this church. At one point, the old box pews were removed, and the interior converted to a hospital for wounded African American soldiers in the Union Army.
St. Stephen’s Church, Petersburg
St. Stephen’s Church was consecrated in 1867 and is the second oldest black church in Virginia and the oldest in the Diocese of Southern Virginia. St. Stephen’s Church’s development as a parish coincided with the initial post-Civil War efforts by the Freedmen’s Bureau to educate the newly emancipated blacks in Petersburg. Before the Civil War, black Episcopalians worshipped in Grace and St. Paul’s churches in Petersburg. In late 1865, Alexander Weddell, a layman at Grace Church, organized a Sunday School for blacks at Grace Church. In 1867, Major Giles B. Cooke, a layman at St. Paul’s Church, organized a Sunday School for blacks there. These two schools became the nucleus of what would become St. Stephen’s Church. The first house of worship, Stringfellow Chapel, was a former army hospital on Poplar Lawn at Sycamore Street. It was destroyed by fire in 1867.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was instrumental in the founding of the Bishop Payne Divinity School for black students which operated on Perry Street, West Washington Street and finally, South West Street. The divinity school existed over a 71-year period from 1878 to 1949 when it was closed and then merged with the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1953.