Tuesday, December 11, 2007

St John's Episcopal Church

St John's Episcopal Church, 2007

This article was a lot of work to transcribe, but there are a lot of historical nuggets in there. I have wondered whether the C.W. Green mentioned was the man memorialized in the name of Green street. He was certainly present at the right time, lived nearby and was a leading figure in the community. Until it can be shown otherwise, I think I'll give him the honor.

Boston Daily Globe January 25, 1891

Made History Rapidly

Early Records of Famous Jamaica Plain Church.

St. John's Episcopal Church Celebrates Its Semi-Centennial Tuesday.

First Services Were Held in Little Wooden Chapel, May, 1841.

There is a good deal of history included in the early records of the St.John's Episcopal church of Jamaica Plain, and its organization and reorganization into the state from which its progress dates occupied a decade or more. On the whole its institution was unusually fraught with difficulties that many years since have ceased to be a part of that influential church of Jamaica Plain, which has passed the 50th milestone.

Tuesday, May 26, the semi-centennial services will be held in the large edifice and parish house belonging to the society. Rev. S.A. Shearman, the rector, will conduct the morning services with communion at 10:30 a.m. At 4:30 p.m. there will be a meeting in the chapel with addresses and reminiscences by old parishioners. A parish tea and social will occupy the time from 6 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.

At 8 p.m. the chief services of the day will be held, at which a large number of clergymen will attend, including Bishop Brooks, while Bishop Clarke of Rhode Island will deliver the sermon.

It is not clearly determined where the first services that preceded and led to the establishment of the St John's Society were held, but one Charles Beaumont is recognized as the inaugurator of Episcopal services in Jamaica Plain. As a result of his efforts services were held in the old Town Hall on Thomas st, and transferred some time after to a building between Eliot and Orchard sts, on Pond st, which has been torn down since.

The worshippers again moved their place of meeting to the old "Seaverns house," which is still standing on the corner of Lakeville pl. and Centre st.

The congregation soon reached those proportions that made a church building necessary and advisable. The society accordingly purchased a large piece of land on Centre st. nearly opposite the estate where they were then worshipping.

A wooden chapel was erected in 1841 and the first services were held in it May 23 of that year. The building was an unpretentious structure, whose location and surrounding, however, lent it a certain air of charm. It was built some distance back from the road, and was precisely in the center of what is now St John's st. A long narrow avenue, shaded by a heavy growth of trees on either side, led to the front entrance of the chapel, and being constructed on either side of the building, formed a small square. The accompanying cut gives a good idea of the front of the chapel, and also well pictures this avenue entrance.

All vestige of this little church as now been removed; the avenue has been broadened into a street, upon either side of which residences of modern architecture have been crowded in, while the old rectory which after a few years was built at right angles with the church, has also yielded to modern artifices and renovated according to later-day designs.

At the first services held in the chapel Rev M.A. De Wolfe Howe, then rector of St. James church, Roxbury, and now bishop of central Pennsylvania, who had taken an active interest in the establishment of the church, delivered the sermon.

The present rector has an old and well-nigh illegible diary, written in pencil, which says that on that day Mr. Howe preached from the text contained in Mathew, v., 6, and the congregation sang "Old Hundred" and hymn 35 from the old hymn book.

Up to this time there had been no organization of the church, but on June 30, 1841, a meeting was held in the chapel upon a warrant issued by L.W. Harris, Esq., a justice of the peace for Norfolk county, at which the owners of pews in the chapel it was ordered should appear and conform to the laws of the Commonwealth by organizing into a corporate body.

Samual G. Goodrich was chosen chairman of the meeting, and William R. Lawrence clerk. The elections of the others were made without a dissenting vote, and were Wardens, Matthew Green and Henry R. Cleveland; vestrymen Charles W. Green, Samuel A. Goodrich, Royal A. Crafts, R.A. Lamb and William R. Lawrence; treasurer and clerk, William R. Lawrence. The meeting voted to adopt the name St. John's chapel.

The title to all the church property was held personally by Rev. Mr. Howe, as he had taken personal charge of the establishment of the church, and he had also assumed the responsibility for the debt that had been incurred by the erection of the building. At a meeting of the church held July 7, 1841, the property was transferred and the society became the proprietors of the chapel with its $1500 debt, while their name became "The Episcopal Society of St. John's Chapel, Jamaica Plain."

One of the members of the church at that time, and one of the first vestrymen and moderator of the first business meeting was Samuel G. Goodrich, who was then widely known as "Peter Parley" through his "child's History of England" and other books for juveniles. A large private avenue upon which the present rectory of St. John's is situated and near where he formerly resided is called Parley Vale to perpetuate Mr. Goodrich's pseudonym.

Other noted characters who were earnest among the early supporters of the church were C.W. Green and his brother Matthew. C.W. was a renowned pedagogue and had a thriving private preparatory school on the corner of Centre and Pond sts, in an old roomy mansion, which scene furnishes the local color for George W. Curtis, who was one of Green's pupils, in his novel "Trumps." All these men identified with the early organizations of this church were representatives of families who were early settlers of the town.

The society adopted a set of bylaws at its meeting July 23, 1841, whereby the proprietors of pews were given all the authority with relation to the management of the church with the exception of the choice of pastor, which should be agreed upon by both owners and renters of pews. Although the chapel was not free from debt still there was nothing then as now that prohibited consecration until the liquidation of all indebtedness, or otherwise it would have been some years after before the chapel would have been ready for consecration. So the new building was duly consecrated by Bishop Griswold on July 25, 1841.

The church on the 1st of August received its first gift, it being a new service of plate for the communion, which was given by Widow James Perkins.

The society had been desirous of having Rev. Mr. Howe take charge of their parish, and they offered resolutions expressive of that gratitude for the zeal with which he had assisted in the building of the chapel, and offered any concession if he would consent to do so without necessarily severing his connection with St. James parish, Roxbury. He did not do this, however.

The chapel continued without a rector, the pulpit being supplied by whoever could be secured, and sometimes there were no available clergymen.

At the September meeting of the society they took away from the pew renters all voice in the selection of a rector. Another effort was made to get a settled rector, and Rev. Mr. Livermore was invited to supply the pulpit for three months, but he did not accept.

On December 7, 1841, the entire church property was transferred back to Rev. Mr. Howe, and a resolution passed that "we are doing what we believe most conductive to the growth of the society and to its permanent establishment among us."

From this point things were rather lax in the society, and although services were held regularly there were no records or does there remain any evidence of what transpired in this religious body until October 17, 1843, when the meeting in the chapel is recorded at which James Barnard was elected a member of the vestry. He continued in that capacity until only a few year ago.

It was at this meeting that their first settled rector, Rev. George C. Shephard, was invited, which he immediately accepted and gave his time and services to the parish, being at that time a summer resident of the community. When Mr. Shepherd left town the church was closed and reopened upon his return for the summer season. Rev. Mr. Shephard resigned July 29, 1845, and at a meeting held May 26, 1844, J. Phillip George was elected treasurer and officiated in that capacity for 35 years.

After Mr Shephard's resignation Rev. Cameron McRae, a visitor in Jamaica Plain, conducted the services, but declined an offer to become rector. In June, 1845, steps were instituted with a view of liquidating the indebtedness of the chapel, the mortgage upon which had through various sources been transferred to Capt. Charles Hill.

A committee, including the church wardens, Joseph S. Avery, Amos A. Lawrence, William H. Sumner and Phineas Capen, were appointed to make a settlement with Capt Hill, while the wardens were empowered to collect money for the same. Some dispute arose at this time as to the boundary line between the estate owned by Capt. Hill and the church property, and a meeting was held Oct. 12, 1845, for the determination of this line, and this same committee were given authority to act in this matter. It is then recorded that on Oct. 19, `1845, Rt. Rev. Manton Esterbrook and the previously named committee were appointed to receive the deeds and title to the church property from Capt. Hill, and to retain it until some action could be taken relative to the reorganization of the parish.

During the winter the chapel services were conducted by Rev. G.W. porter, who volunteered. During this time the business affairs of the society had not been in a (?)gible state and May 1, 1846, Francis Hilliard, Esq., justice of the peace, issued a warrant for the purpose of a new organization of the parish, which was effected May 9.

The mortgage had at this time been entirely cleared, and the church committee were in possession of all title to the property, upon payment of $2100.20. In conveying the property, Capt. Hill expressly stipulated that there should be no part of the land used for a burial ground, and he retained a strip of land included within the lines of the church property upon condition that it should be conveyed again if it were ever needed for an extension of the church building.

In September, 1846, the society had their first settled rector in the person of Rev. E. F. Slafter.

Previous to this the prosperity of the society had been retarded by various dissensions among the members which the records say arose upon the unusual arrangement of having an assistant rector when Rev. Mr. Howe was invited to the rectorship.

During the following year of Mr. Slafter's rectorship the parish seems to have flourished as it had not done before, and the differences among members had been so amicably adjusted that the increased interest and growth made an enlargement of the church advisable. Accordingly, Aug. 2, 1847, the strip of land held by capt. Hill was conveyed to the parish.

On June 9, 1847, there were 31 communicants recorded.

The church was immediately enlarged so as to admit 18 more pews, which made the building wider than it was long. With the chapel more commodious and a regular rector the parish next undertook the movement in favor of the erection of a rectory. But other matters claimed their attention as the people desired to have the title of the property vested in the church organization which was up to this time held by the trustees, entrusted to pay off the mortgage and to hold the property. The trustees were the dictating authority, as being legal holder of the property, the church could do but very little without the consent of the trustees. When asked to release their trust July 17, 1847, the trustees agreed to do so as soon as 10 persons should purchase pews and pay for such to the amount of $500, the reorganized parish having no pew owners.

By Oct. 3, 14 pews had been sold as demanded by the trustees, but the property was not deeded to the church until July 31, 1848, after they had again, on May 22, made formal application for it.

The reason assigned for the delay in the relinquishing of the title by the trustees was the claim that the organization of May, 1846, was illegal, a material point in statute law having not been complied with and another organization of the parish in consequence of this was made July 25, 1849, when the church was deemed eminently qualified to hold real estate.

The next thing of interest in connection with the church and in line of progress was the erection of a new rectory which was built near the chapel and at right angles with it and was completed in September 1849. The "Ladies League" took an active interest in the house and most of the money for it was raised through their efforts.

[cut prosaic details]

At the annual meeting in 1857 the enlargement of the chapel again came up and the practicability of an entirely new one was considered with some well defined ideas of erecting one, but finally it was voted to expend $3500 upon an addition to the old church.

The improvements were an extension in length 22 1/2 feet, which admitted of 24 new pews, making 69 in all and a new building added on made an extension of 12 1/2 feet, which gave room for a library and robing room. Gas was also introduced and the interior of the edifice ornamented, and the building remained practically as it was in later years, when it was vacated, removed and its location became a street. Permission was given to Gen. William A. Sumner to place a marble tablet in the church to the memory of his mother-in-law.

The parish purchased in November, 1850 a house on Myrtle st. at a cost of $8000 which was used for a rectory and subsequently sold. A new organ was purchased in 1861, and in November of that year, upon the death of Gen. Sumner, his widow was given permission to erect a tablet to his memory upon the walls of the church.

In May, 1872, a Sunday schoolroom was erected, and in October of that year, after being rector for over 16 years, Rev. W.R. Babcock resigned on account of ill health. His place was filled May 14, 1873 by the acceptance by Rev. Abbott Brown of the rectorship, who remained ministering the needs of the parish until March 3, 1876, when he resigned.

Rev. Sumner U. Shearman, the present rector, was called to the church October 30, 1876. He was an ardent young preacher and the church grew visibly during the first few years after his coming until the old fashioned church was totally inadequate.

When Gen. William A. Sumner died in 1861, he left a bequest of land between Roanoke av. and Revere st. for a new church, but, the bequest, according to the will, must be confirmed by the widow upon her death. she could have disposed of it otherwise, but at her death in 1873 she confirmed the bequest of land. At that time the parish thought itself in a feeble financial condition, and as there was a commercial panic at the time, it was not considered practicable to build the new church.

As there was a clause in the bequest that necessitated immediate occupancy the society bought the right to hold it for 10 years from the heirs, to whom the land would otherwise revert.

Although the necessity of a new church had been long apparent, it was not until the spring of 1882 that work was begun upon the present edifice. The corner-stone was laid in April, 1882, by Bishop Paddock, and the church was finished in 1883, the first services being held in it Feb 9, 1883. It was consecrated in October, 1886, then being out of debt, and Bishop Hoew, who delivered the first sermon in the old church, preached the sermon on that occasion.

The parish house and chapel, which in the cut form a wing of the church, was erected in the summer of 1888, and contained a chapel with altar and verandas and also parish rooms.

The entire building has a most beautiful location upon a rising knoll in one of the finest residential portions of Jamaica Plain, and cost as it is today, about $55,000. The material is Roxbury stone with Bay of Fundy stone trimmings, and the building could hardly be duplicated today for the original cost.

The church auditorium is richly ornamented with light terra cotta walls and pale green ceiling, and the chancel decoration is not often equalled. Five narrow gothic windows light the chancel; in the center one Christ is represented and in the others with their symbolic representations there is St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke and St. John.

To the bottom of the windows the walls are covered with burnt gold, as the chancel arch; next a band of cherub's heads is frescoed entirely around the chancel. On either side of the carved oak reredos are two marvellous mural paintings in genuine fresco, representing Moses as the law giver and David as the psalmist. The altar and the reredos are also elegantly carved respective with the tokens of the last supper and emblems of the passion. The chapel connected with the church is finished in lighter pattern and simpler, but none the less beautiful in design and there most of the Lenten services are held.

[cut remaining details of the contemporary rector, Rev. Sumner U. Shearman.]


  1. Thank you! Just found out my great grandmother was married at this church and I was really happy to find your photos and article since it's unlikely I will ever get there myself.

  2. Glad to help - it's a beautiful building.