Wicomico Parish Church

Our History

Meet the Rector and Staff
Our History
2010 Events
Lay Responsibilities
Traditions, Celebrations, and Activities
Reflections out of the Study Window
Episcopal, Anglican Communion, and Other Links

The history of our church and the values of our parishioners influence the spirit of both the physical and personal church where we worship today.

Our tradition at Wicomico Parish Church has its roots in the historic Church of England and particularly the Elizabethan Settlement as we have understood it for almost 450 years. It is for good reason that over time, three “parties” emerged in the Anglican tradition. There was an Evangelical party that identified with the Puritan Calvinists who emphasized Scripture alone, an Anglo-Catholic Party that identified with the Roman Catholic Church who emphasized tradition, and a Broad Church party that identified with a Reformed Catholicism whose theological and liturgical framework uses Scripture, tradition, and reason. We were held together over the years despite the inherent tensions between the three by a respect for and love of each other and the experience of sharing a common life of prayer and mission. If I had to characterize our practice here, I would say that we are more in the Broad Church stream.

The Elizabethan settlement of the 16th Century is what has made the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion possible. From the beginning Anglicans had an awareness that the result of any revision of the Elizabethan settlement would be that we would no longer be who we are.

In its essence, the Elizabethan Settlement sought to include as many people and positions as possible. Pragmatically it was shaped so that only the most radical Puritan Protestants on the one hand and only the most extreme Roman Catholics on the other could not fit themselves within its generous wide embrace. Elizabeth’s ideal was a church whose worship was uniform but which allowed great latitude in opinions. It was rooted in a conviction that tradition and change were compatible. It has been described as quietly hiding a moderate Protestant theology – the 39 Articles – within a familiar and traditional catholic liturgy native to England and now spoken in English. Rather than seeking reasons to burn people at the stake as heretics, it sought their outward conformity, to include them, and did not insist on a rigid and narrow private orthodoxy. “Say the creeds in public as they are written,” the great Queen is alleged to have said, “And interpret them as you will in private.”

Within the great Settlement were the seeds of the middle way, the via media, the recognition that there were many truths, many of which conflicted with each other and that indeed Holy Scripture itself was rife with such contradictions. But people of good will and deep Christian spirituality and profound faith and a sense of Christian servanthood could disagree with one another and yet rally behind the essential truth that there was one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all”, even as they disagreed over exactly what faith and Baptism might mean.

It was this reformed Christianity that made it possible for the great Richard Hooker to set forth the now classical Anglican way of thought and sensibility: appropriate use of Scripture, tradition, and reason, that both ancient and modern wisdom can be used for insight, that the reformed Church of England and its children (including the Episcopal Church) were a part of the long continuity of the Christian Church, that the Roman Church was the ancestor of them all.

It was this reformed Christianity that the English colonists brought with them to Virginia beginning in 1607 with the Jamestown colony.

In particular, the principle of the reformed Christianity of the Elizabethan Settlement was that no one view should dominate and replace all the others. There have been, of course, those groups who could not tolerate such a richness of diversity – and especially could not tolerate the fact that their particular theological constructs would not prevail over all the others.

The 17th Century radical Puritans under Oliver Cromwell were among the earliest of these groups. They executed King Charles, and established a government dictatorship, and a presbyterian form of church polity and theology in religion. In the 18th Century the followers of John and Charles Wesley eventually formed a separate church in England and abroad that we now know as Methodist – even though the Wesley brothers remained faithful Church of England clergymen.

In America, in the 19th Century, in 1873 a small number of clergy left and organized the Reformed Episcopal Church in protest against the growing influence of the theology and ritual of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford movement in England, among other things.

In the 20th and early 21st Centuries we are familiar with the schismatic splinter groups who formed various denominations styling themselves “Anglican” or “Anglican Orthodox”, among others, because they could not accept Prayer Book revision and the ordination of women. They are neither particularly Anglican nor Orthodox.

The current issue facing the Church is really not about gay and lesbian clergy. It isn’t really about the authority of Scripture. It is about revisiting -- revising – actually undoing -- the Elizabethan Settlement and its classical Anglicanism and insisting that those who call themselves Episcopalians must conform to a fundamentalism whose orthodoxy demands adherence to narrow views of God and particularly the acceptance of the absolute inerrancy of Scripture and its literal interpretation. This is the price of their remaining within the Episcopal Church. It would do away with the rich diversity and freedom of thought and Christian servanthood and Christian practice that the Elizabethan Settlement has made possible over the years.

Jesus, God himself, gave us a way to find our way out of this dilemma. We too often overlook it when we are in the midst of debate and disagreement. It is found in two places.

The first is the Summary of the Law: Jesus said, “…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first and great commandment. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” We find this in both Mark and Matthew. (Mk12:30-32; Mt2:37-39)

The second is in the Gospel appointed for Maundy Thursday, from John (13:34-35): Jesus said to his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

The question that must be answered by us in everything that we do is this: How do we measure up to what Jesus told us to do? For it is this sort of love of and for God and each other that is at the heart of what makes us Anglicans and Episcopalians, what makes us servants in Christ’s image, what has made the Elizabethan Settlement last for five centuries, and what will make other people when they see us know that we are Christians. And they will see that God has made a new creation.

Sketch of the current complex. The Church Proper 1902; Parish House 1954.
Interspersed with the text are pictures of our communion rail kneelers.  Designed by the late Bobby Ball, a long time coummunicant, and executed by our members, the needlepoint pillows picture the three demolished earlier churches and the heritage of our area.
The First Church, Wickocomicoe Parish c. 1647-1685:
 Our Colonial Foundation

Kneeler of the 1656 Church

The first Wicomico Parish Church was in reality a parish of the Church of England in Virginia as were the next two Wicomico Parish churches.

In the earliest days of the Virginia Colony, when it was organized into eight Shires, each shire was required by law to have a court and a parish church. With formation of the Counties, each county required the same, with the records to be kept and copies sent on to Jamestown. Two parishes in what became Northumberland County, Chicawane and Wiccocomoco, were created in or before 1645. [Overholt] The boundary between them was generally the line of the Great Wicomico River. Chicawane (later Chicacoan) Parish disappeared from history and was succeeded by the present day Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church. Wicomico Parish Church continued, nourished by faithful men and women except for a mid 19th Century interlude.

In 1646 during the government of Sir William Berkeley, an Act of the Assembly: . . "Whereas, the inhabitants of Chicawane, alias Northumberland, being members of this Colony," etc. The following year an Act . . ."That the ninth Act of Assembly of 1647, for reducing the inhabitants of Chickoun and other parts of the neck of land Rappahannock and Potomacke Rivers, be repealed, and that the said tract of land be hereafter called and known by the name of the county of Northumberland."

A combination of sources tell us that the Wicomico church building was constructed in 1647/8; the builder and exact location are uncertain. Tradition has it that this wooden building was on the site of the present church and was rendered unusable by termites.. It follows that in order to agree to have a church built, how much to spend, and where to locate would have taken a congregation two or three years. The medium of exchange being tobacco, those crops to pay for the work would have to have been raised over at least two growing seasons.

It was a well-appointed church with red silk plush hangings on pulpit and altar. Three prominent families donated the church silver, including the large silver chalice donated by the early Lees of Virginia.

The Second Church, Wiccocomoco Parish, c. 1686-1771

Kneeler of the 1680 church

Thirty-one years after the first church, a second, larger church was contracted to be built. However, seven more years passed with the church not completed. A court order of 15th July, 1685, commanded that William Hartland finish "the said church by Christmas next or repay the vestry the sum of twenty five thousand pounds of tobacco and cask." A note in the margin says that Hartland was arrested May 6, 1686, for non-compliance. It did not say who finished the church. Or whether the vestry was repaid.

The Third Church, Wiccocomico Parish,
1771 - c. 1812 (no activity 1813-1854)

Kneeler of the 1760 church

Over sixty years had passed when the vestry agreed, on May 9, 1753, to replace the second church. Work was to be completed in five years. It was to be an explicit copy of Christ Church, Irvington/Weems, only five feet bigger. (A little society thing, what with the LEE family at Wicomico and the CARTERS at Christ Church.) Serious delays and modifications set back the start of the third church until 1766, ten years before the American Revolution began.

Put into service in 1771, just five years before the American Revolution, it was the largest brick church in Virginia.

Wicomico Parish Church continued functioning throughout the Revolution, and even ten years more after the Disestablishment. The Vestry minutes of 1703-1795 mention little if anything of the turmoil swirling around them. The Continental Congress passes an Act in 1785 creating the separation of church and state. Just after that Act of 1785, the first Diocese of Virginia was established in convention at Philadelphia. Even then, we were gutsy people. Our vestry continued to meet until 1795. Then the Minutes cease.

All Church of England in Virginia, the Established Church of the State, had been sanctioned as an adjunct. Many had been built on public lands given by the State. In 1802 the General Assembly declared that all the land and churches, with all their possessions, no longer belonged to the Episcopal Church, but were public property. Wicomico parish lands were seized by the Overseers of the Poor, who auctioned them off.

This would appear to have been a mortal blow. Dispersed by the effects of wars, failing tobacco crops, and the disestablishment of the church, many left. Bishop Meade declared that there were no Episcopalians left in Wicomico Parish. He was mistaken, but barely. The Parish was represented at the Diocesan Council in 1812 and 1813. Then the records are silent.

As the third building was decaying and collapsing from lack of use, a last Vestryman gave Bishop Meade the cherished church silver in 1840, for safe keeping. It was subsequently sent to the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia, the new seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. The bricks of the church were sold and the proceeds sent to the seminary to build Key Chapel, named after Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star Spangled Banner" and a prominent Episcopal layman who was instrumental in the founding of the Seminary.

Other reports of Wicomico Episcopalians attending services at Grace, St. Stephen's, Trinity, and St. Mary's Whitechapel continued to appear during the next two generations.
Only recently was the exact location of this church determined; to read more click on the marker 1771.


Rebirth - Interim Church, 1855-1902

Ships brought our earliest English settlers

A real revival began after the mid 1800's when "Aunt Bettie" would read the lessons to a few faithful gathered at "Snowden Park," her home. In 1877 she created the "Ladies Aid Society," a direct ancestor to the ECW. The parish has always thrived under the care and ministration of its faithful women. The group of worshipers grew quickly and moved into larger quarters. This fifth meeting place, which they bought, was an abandoned school house, situated just one hundred fifty yards south of the present church. It was enlarged into a chapel of ease.

Under this strong lay leadership, present in today's church over one hundred years later, the parish was reborn, revived, survived, and moved into the 20th Century. By 1880, the Revd Henry Derby, Rector of Trinity, reported that he had officiated at Wicomico. Also, the congregation saw Bishop F. M. Whittle preach and confirm three in "Wycomico Church, in Northumberland." The silver was returned that year and is in use in the present day.

The Fourth Church, Wicomico Parish Church

The Chesapeake Bay and the Great Wicomico River are important in our history

Construction began in 1898/9 by Master Carpenter Henry Stegeman. Bishop Gibson consecrated the church on December 14, 1902, the third Sunday in Advent. A plain-looking building, it stood off the ground on brick pillars. The front door opened onto the aisle; the back door was in the southeast corner, exiting from the sacristy. The choir vested in there, went out the back door and around the church to the front. The building had four colored glass paneled windows on each side. Inside was a wood stove; no pews, only chairs and benches. The belfry and vesting rooms were proposed by the Vestry in 1908. Not until the year 1950 did it get done. The Parish hall was completed in 1954.

In 1992 a long overdue period of major renovation and modernization was begun. The parish hall kitchen was renovated and brought up to date with new cabinetry and major appliances. In 1994 the sacristy addition was completed, providing a handicap access bathroom, adequate working space for the altar guild and a vesting sacristy for the rector. In 1996 the parish hall basement renovations were completed to provide a library, an attractive room for the Sunday School which had been reestablished the year before, and a choir practice room. Bishop Lee dedicated these renovations in his visitation in 1996.

By 2000 the interior renovations to the church and parish house had been completed when the parish hall proper had been modernized, redecorated, and equipped with a gas log fireplace and new overhead lighting fixtures which replaced the bare bulb cart wheels in use for almost half a century. In 2001, the exquisite columbarium wall and landscaping for the cemetery were completed. It was during this period that a new electronic organ was purchased and voiced and new improved speakers placed in the walls of the sanctuary. Bishop Lee dedicated the renovated Parish Hall, the new organ, and the columbarium during his visitation that summer.

In 2002 the half century of neglected maintenance was caught up when a matching grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund allowed the leaking roof of church, steeple, breezeway, and parish house to be replaced with copper.

During the same decade ending in 2003, this small parish also underwent other major changes. Membership doubled. The Episcopal Church Women turned the adjacent unoccupied Rectory into a thriving Thrift Shop to serve the lower Northern Neck. The Men's Breakfast became an established and popular monthly fixture in the community on the first Saturday of each month. The early 8 AM service of Holy Communion, begun on a trial basis in 1994, became a permanent part of parish life, on occasion being as well attended as the traditional 10 AM service.

We face the 21st Century with the same confidence in God's power and grace that led our forbears to establish God's church on this small plot of land over 350 years ago. We will continue to be a witness for Christ's love for all the world and to proclaim the good news of the Gospel to all who would listen and to those who would not.

Arthur C. Johnson, Jr. April 5, 1996; revised 1 September 2003 by the Rector.

Rectors of Wicomico Parish Church, 1970s-present
Steilberg, Dillard (present rector and only surviving), Thomte, Baker, Bunting

Discovery of the 1760 Ruins

In the 1990s Arthur C. (Bill) Johnson, a history buff and member of the church, used radar to probe the ground around the current (fourth) church building and located the ruins of the third church. He based his probes on earlier work done by parishioners John and Peg Overholt and on the vestry records for Wiccocomoco Parish, May 9th, 1753, which read, The vestry hath agreed to have a new church built near the Old one of seventy-five feet in length - as near as possible to the old church.

Several years ago, Rocco Tricarico, an architect in Heathsville, became interested in this third church. Based on the minutes of the vestry above, he computer-generated a plan view, which today hangs in the Parish House. The recent find matched his projections.

The third church was more glorious and grand than either of the previous two or the current one. It was a cruciform brick church and was not only five feet larger than Christ Church (1732, Lancaster County) but was the largest in Virginia. Unlike Christ Church, Lancaster which today is one of the countrys architectural treasures, the Wicomico building fell into ruins. The legacy of that building is the small Key Chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria built with the proceeds from the sale of the Wicomico bricks.

The Revd Dr. W. Scott Dillard, rector of Wicomico Parish Church, holds in addition to his divinity degree a doctorate in American history. Commenting on the value of the recent find, he said, Recovering the outline of the foundation and designating the corners with granite markers donated by Currie Funeral Home will help preserve the memory of this significant landmark in the history of Northumberland County and Virginia.

The 350th anniversary of Wicomico Parish Church slightly precedes that of Northumberland Countys celebration of its 350th in 1998; hopefully, the discovery of these ruins anticipates other such riches lurking in the grounds, attics, and libraries of its people. The Church will end its 350th Anniversary Celebration in 2002, the centennial of the construction of the current (fourth) building.

Dedication of Needlepoint Kneeling Cushions

Wicomico Parish Church (Episcopal) dedicated five kneeling cushions to the memory of Bessie Day Townsend Ball (1898 -1988) at the Eucharist, Sunday, November 16, 1997 Surrounding the communion rail, the cushions trace the history of the church buildings which have stood on the plot of ground given by the Church of England to worshippers in Northumberland County by 1646.

The late Robert (Bobby) Carter Ball, one of Bessie's sons and the then administrator of Ditchley for the Jessie Ball duPont Trust, designed the cushions. Together, they illuminate the three prior church buildings; the flora and fauna of the land; and the creatures and vessels of the waters nearby.

Nancy Hagedorn of St. Annes, Annapolis, painted the canvases; then five women of Wicomico executed the drawings in needlepoint: Joan Busch, Marian Johnson, Peg Overholt, Emily Pomerleau, and Amy Wilson. Nancy Lukoskie of Fancywork Finishing made the pillows to follow the irregular lines of the communion rail so the panorama flows in an uninterrupted path. She specializes in creating and restoring fine ecclesiastical needlepoint; her work graces the National Cathedral.

The dedication of the cushions continued the exciting celebration of the 350th anniversary of the only church in Wicomico Parish. Beginning with the Festival Matins and Choral Eucharist on April 21, 1996, the church has flown flags designed and sewed by Amy Wilson and Dorothy Pagano; they currently hang in the Parish House and continue to remind members of the 350 Years of Christian Witness. These banners are currently preserved on the Parish Hall wall.