Friday, September 26, 2008

A History of Saint Paul's

The voices raised in worship each Sunday at Saint Paul's in Portsmouth are forever joined by a cloud of witnesses who have also shared in worship within the small white church building with red doors at the corner of East Main Road and Church Lane during the last 175 years. Though the small white church and the Episcopal Church itself have undergone changes during this time, the essential joyful rhythm of the Prayer Book liturgies have been maintained in this sacred space throughout these years. This year, in both their Sunday services and in their daily lives, parishioners at Saint Paul's are celebrating this continuous history and are seeking God's blessing for their future.


Saint Paul's Church was founded by a small group of Portsmouth residents, with the Rev. John Fenner from Saint Michael's, Bristol, RI, conducting its first Episcopal service on July 7, 1833. At this time he discussed the possibility of starting a parish and then gained approval to do so from the Rhode Island Convocation. Ground was broken in September 1833 and the church building was completed in December that same year. The building was designed and built by architect Russell Warren who also designed the Portsmouth Free Library, the Arcade in Providence, and the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport. On the 25th day of December in 1833 the first service was held in the new Saint Paul's Church. The record of this service is reported in the Episcopal Recorder on January 1, 1834: "On Christmas Day last, S. Paul's Church, Portsmouth, R.I., was opened for the worship of Almighty God."

Though the worship service each Sunday still has many similarities with the first services held here, there have been significant renovations to the church and churchyard. This summer the Parish Hall shingles were cleaned and the trim repainted, and painting of the church building exterior was completed. The Hall was also recently completely refinished inside with help of our partners in the Portsmouth Arts Guild.

But of course there were many more significant changes earlier in St Paul's history. For example - when first built St Paul's had two doors, there was no organ, the pews were enclosed by doors and the first pulpit was donated from Saint Andrew's Church in Providence on April 25, 1859. A coal and wood furnace was installed in 1873. Electricity was installed for lights in 1920 - the church had previously been lit by lamps filled with whale oil. Oil heat was installed in the 1930's - when the price of oil was 19 cents a gallon.

The Rectory was built in the 1839 for the Rev. Robert E. Northrum who, sadly, died the following year. Over the years since the rectory has been used to house the rector, for the Sunday school, and more recently as office space and as a meeting place. The house is currently rented and used by a counseling service.

The Parish Hall was built in 1895. Electric wiring was also installed in the Hall in 1920 and indoor plumbing was added in the Hall in 1928 - indoor plumbing was not provided in the Rectory until 1962.


A bell tower was added to the Hall about 1900 to house a bell cast in 1858 that was donated by Emmanuel Church Newport. In the late 1960s after an automobile hit the tower, the vestry removed the bell and the tower top for safety reasons . The bell is still in Portsmouth in the care of a private citizen. The base of the tower currently houses the Parish Hall restrooms.

Some older parishioners can also remember the church interior being completely redone from 1961 through 1966 . During this renovation, described at the time as a "complete refurbishing of the fabric of the building", a new organ console was installed in the choir loft and the altar rails were moved; the pews, the chancel, choir loft and sacristy were remodeled; and, the needlepoint cushions at the altar rail were done by women of the parish under the supervision of Phoebe Garforth. Photographs are available from that time which capture the dramatic transformation.

During this period the Lady Garden, a place of contemplation, was designed and built by Rev. David Jenkins who has returned to preside at St Paul's this summer. The Rev. David Jenkins recalls how he begged used bricks, removed the old rectory outhouse and landscaped the area with many plants donated from his mother's gardens. In later years Peter Harris maintained the garden and the central fish pond was replaced with a weeping elm tree.

In 1982 the Agnes Dei window, which was originally installed when the chancel was added to the original church building in the late 19th century, was restored and blessed. This window can be seen on your left when you first enter the church.

The grounds of Saint Paul's Church have an historical cemetery, well maintained by very dedicated volunteers. A family burial ground was on the property purchased as the site for the Rectory in 1836, with graves predating the American Revolution. The burial ground was expanded over the years into the current peaceful cemetery. In August of 2006 an Urn Garden was dedicated and afterwards the celebrants enjoyed a potluck brunch.


Of course, any potluck occasion at St Paul's means many busy people. Among these many people you will find Shirley Sylvia. Some 50 years ago Shirley came to Saint Paul's at the suggestion of the rector at Saint Luke's Episcopal Church in Fall River. Shirley concisely recalls this as, " Tried it, liked it, and never left". Like many who belong to Saint Paul's, Shirley has been an active member of the parish . She has been in the Altar Guild since 1980 and has been head of the Guild since 1986 following the death of long time Altar Guild Directoress Ruth Barton. Shirley also serves on the vestry where her sense of Saint Paul's history and her insight are a valuable resource - and she can always be counted on for a contribution of excellent food at almost any gathering.

Another very busy person at Saint Paul's is Linda Remington, former Senior Warden and now Junior Warden. Linda recalls, "Stan and Chi Cornwall introduced me to Saint Paul's after their dog Windsor introduced us while I was rollerblading on the bike path. I was recovering from a divorce and found the Wednesday healing service a portal to a spiritual path I'd drifted from in my late teens. It has been a richly rewarding experience serving and growing with the people of this parish . . . and they're fun to be with."

Music has always been a central part of worship at Saint Paul's, whether it be the oldest and most traditional Anglican hymns or contemporary Christian music. We express our love and are loved through our music, we heal and are healed through our music, and we teach and learn through our music.

Many clergy have shared our parish life and have helped form our community. Among those in the recent past who are very much a part of our lives are the Rev. Andy Barasda - with whom we celebrated our 150th anniversary; the Rev. Aaron Usher - who emphasized the healing dimension of our ministry; the Rev. David Jenkins - who is with us this summer; the Rev. Gordon Stenning - who frequently leads our services and with whom we celebrated the 50th anniversaries of his ordination as a Deacon and to the Priesthood; and the Rev. Paul Twelves - who led our services and mentored our Christian Formation as an interim rector and supply priest several times in recent years and who still presides at occasional services. When asked about Saint Paul's, the Rev. Paul Twelves recalls " I think of the first service ... there was no Mount Hope Bridge then. I wonder if the ferry was running on Christmas Day, 1833 or did those stalwart soul's cross the bay in their own boat, pulling with oars all the way. In many ways that image of a few people rowing against wind and current is an apt image for Saint Paul's. Maintaining a church here has required a hopeful spirit, sacrifice, imagination, and resourcefulness. I admire that. "


Additional clergy with whom we share a special bond include the Reverends H├ębert Bolles, Daniel Burke, James Bocchino, J. Patrick Maundy, Anne Bolles-Beavan, and Ashley Peckham. The latter three individuals attended Saint Paul's prior to ordination while the Rev. Bocchino trained at Saint Paul's before attending seminary. The Rev. J. Patrick Maundy, recently retired former Coordinator for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church and Deputy for Anglican Communion Relations, first attended Saint Paul's while at Officers Candidate School in Newport after returning from Vietnam. He recalls being "unchurched" at the time but being "deeply moved" by the worship at Saint Paul's and that the Rev. David Jenkins brought him and his wife into this community where his vocation to priesthood was awakened.

Other clergy from former years fondly remembered for faithful service include the Rev, J. Sturgis Pearce who served for 25 years until 1911 and the Rev. Thomas Walker, a priest from England who served in the early 1950s and visited the family home of every parish member by foot.

The parishioners at Saint Paul's work daily at extending Christian love, grace and mercy among themselves and also into the community beyond as part of their church's mission to follow Jesus' example of loving, healing and teaching. These efforts vary over a broad range of activities which include sharing use of the church facilities with groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Alanon, Overeaters Anonymous, and the Portsmouth Arts Guild. Monetary support is given to local, national and international groups such as the annual CROP Hunger Walk, Episcopal Charities Fund of Rhode Island, Episcopal Relief and Development, Oxfam and other groups as the need arises. This year Saint Paul's is one of eight parishes in the Rhode Island Diocese that reached the Diocesan request for the Episcopal Charities Fund Drive.

Saint Paul's member Bob Gessler recently returned from a Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip to Tajikistan in Central Asia. The Habitat team of 12 people from across the country primarily helped dig the foundations, mix concrete, pass buckets of concrete, carry rocks and assemble rebar for the concrete foundations. During the two week stay in the country Bob worked on building several houses at two sites. The houses are constructed of mud bricks on concrete foundations with sheet metal roofs attached to timber rafters. When asked about his trip Bob said "The experience was what I had hoped for. I enjoyed most working along side the homeowners".

A 2006 Heifer Campaign conducted in partnership with Saint Mary's Episcopal Church, Portsmouth, was very successful with over $7500 raised to help end world hunger. The joint effort was a key part of the Saint Paul's commitment to helping achieve the Millennium Development Goals outlined by the UN and strongly endorsed by the Episcopal Church of the USA at the 75th General Convention.

These and other ministries which fulfill the Saint Paul's mission are firmly grounded in and strengthened by being a part of worship within the Saint Paul's community. Thinking of that community Linda Remington reflects, " In my view the congregation and clergy who have served Saint Paul's during my tenure have exemplified the Episcopal/Anglican covenant of Unity - this in the face of substantial diversity, adversity and change. It has been taxing and fulfilling, and I am very proud of the people of Saint Paul's parish. "

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This history was prepared for our 175th Anniversary Celebration. Many thanks to the many persons who contributed. A version of this history was published in the Sakonnet Times of September 11, 2008.