This history was compiled by Gail Doucette Wojton in 1976.
A History of
ST. PETER’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Thirty feet from a bustling thoroughfare, St. Peter’s Church sits serenely secure under embowering maples, quietly contemplating 242 years of a life that has been worth living. Like a Grande dame, she is trussed up a bit to contain a sagging outline and the telltale signs of age. But she is proud, oh so proud, of her long and colorful life, her successful emergence from crises that would have spelled certain doom for less robust constitutions, and her unquestioned beauty even after all these years.
And proud she has a right to be. From its founding as the result of a dispute over where a meetinghouse should be built; through the tragic loss of its first four candidates for ordination, from the bold dissension of its Tory rector to the erection of a church so ahead of its time that it was slandered as “Jarvis’ Folly,” nothing about the early years of St. Peter’s parish can be labeled ordinary.
The Meetinghouse War
The history of St. Peter’s is inseparable from the original township of Hebron, which then included major portions of Andover and Marlborough, as the parish still does today. The settlement of the town, which had beg un in 1704, had little religious motive, setting it apart from a good n umber of earlier Connecticut towns, but had been accomplished by individuals seeking a beer economic and 90cial future. Nevertheless, political rights could not be divorced from the religious realm; when the scattered settlers sought to incorporate as a town, state law required establishment of a Congregationalist society in the town. The call went out for a minister, and the first squabbles over the location of the meetinghouse began.
Because the site selected would probably become the crossing of future roads in the town and would provide a definite focus or center for the town, thus affecting property values, each landowner had a stake in the outcome. Some of them wanted it in the Godfrey Hill section, about one-half mile north of the traffic light, where it would have ‘been more convenient for those who came from the Gilead and Andover sections, and others wanted it farther south. The squabblers came to be known as the northern and southern parties.
For two years the controversy raged, until a special committee of the General Assembly had to be sent out to resolve the issue. They fixed the site approximately where the traffic light is now. The meetinghouse was begun in 1716 and the townsfolk worshipped as one but did not forget their differences.
Meanwhile John Bliss, a graduate of Yale 1710, had been called to be the town’s first settled minister. He was given a plot of 160 acres on Godfrey Hill, and a yearly salary of 50 pounds.
Smoldering resentments caught fire again in 1731 when a new and larger meetinghouse was deemed necessary; again the northern party made an attempt to change the site. The Rev. Bliss (he had been ordained in the Congregational Church in 1717) clearly sided with the northerners. To rid themselves of their most outspoken opponent, the southern party brought charges of “habitual intemperance” and sundry immoralities against the Rev. Bliss. He was tried before a conclave of the clergy of Hartford County and acquitted; for two more years he continued to minister to his feuding people. In 1733, about fifty people, “dissatisfied and partly uneasy” under the Rev. Bliss, petitioned the town to be set off into a Congregationalist society and released from his support, to secure a minister of their own. This request was denied but before the argument was over; more tactics would be tried, including the burning down of the meetinghouse on the green, rumored to have been set by a simple-minded boy hired by one of the zealots to precipitate matters.
Despairing of being able to reconcile his flock, the Rev. Bliss resigned and then was dismissed by the same group of clergy that had earlier acquitted him. He continued holding services, however, for his stout adherents, mostly of the northern party, using his own house to hold the meetings. His friends were soon to pay for their loyalty with a lawsuit. Bliss and five of his supporters were hauled before the Hartford County Court on the serious offense of having “carried on Divine worship contrary to the statutes of this Colony.” Again Bliss was freed from the charges brought against him, but he and his followers were required to assume the costs of the trial, later partly remitted.
In 1734, tradition claims, Mr. Bliss and his followers thereupon declared themselves for the Church of England, thus ending all danger of accusations of schismatic worship. It is said that Bliss had been brought up in the communion of the Church of England, and perhaps the majority of his adherents were originally of the English church, most being English born, and their return to her fold was only natural under their harassing circumstances.
There was no doubt at the time that their move was actuated as much by a genuine love of the English Church as by the desire to have their own way at any cost. Bliss himself gave the land for the first church site and the building of the first St. Peter’s was begun in 1735. It was the sixth Episcopal Church in the colony. For lack of funds, it was not completed until 1766. All that is known of that first edifice is that it was 58 by 30 feet in size.
While he had done so much to organize the new church, the Rev. John Bliss was destined not to be its first ordained priest. For about six years he conducted services as a lay reader, as his Congregationalist ordination not being recognized by the Episcopal Church. It was necessary at that time for candidates for priesthood in the Episcopal Church to go to England for ordination, since there were no resident bishops here. On February l, 1741, on the eve of his departure for England to take Holy Orders, Bliss died of smallpox. He is buried in the old churchyard on Godfrey Hill, close by the original church’s site.
This was not the last of smallpox and disaster for St. Peter’s. Barzillai Dean, a graduate of Yale 1739 and after graduation a lay reader at St. Peter’s, sailed to England and was ordained. On his return voyage, his ship was lost at sea. Another candidate, Jonathan Colton, was ordained in England in 1752, but die of smallpox on the ship returning to St. Peter’s. Still a third postulant, James Usher, sought ordination as St. Peter’s rector. After theological preparation under the direction of his father, also a priest, he embarked for England and received Holy Orders, only to be taken captive by the French on his return voyage, dying a prisoner. A Mr. Fairweather of Boston is also said to have been ordained for St. Peter’s in England, but died in the West Indies on his return trip.
One can imagine the undisguised emotions of the little congregation’s Congregationalist neighbors throughout this period. Surely they must have felt the repeated failures of this struggling band of church people were demonstrations of divine disfavor “to prevent the growth of prelacy in this western land,” it was later written by Samuel Peters.
The untimely deaths of these young men did not dissuade Samuel Peters, born in Hebron in 1735 and a graduate of Yale 1757, from seeking the rectorship of St. Peter’s. He sailed for England in 1758 and received Holy Orders in 1759. While in England, he too nearly died of smallpox, but recovered and safely; returned ta Hebron the following year.
Loyalty to Church and Crown – or Country?
If there had been stormy times in the town under the Rev. Mr. Bliss, the hardy band of worshippers was to be sorely tested under the leadership of this “man of an iron will as well as an iron frame,” as a biographer of Peters has said of him.
The Rev. Mr. Peters seems to have been considerably influenced by his short sojourn in England. Wrote his nephew, Connecticut Governor John S. Peters, “He loved. Kings, admired the British government, and revered the Hierarchy. He aped the style of an English nobleman, built his house in a forest, kept his coach, and looked with some degree of scorn upon republicans.” When he had received Holy Orders, he had token an oath of solemn allegiance to King and country, a vow he planned to keep. Too, he had been highly honored during his stay in London and had been nursed back from the door of death by the English. Throughout his ministry at St. Peter’s, his church received assistance from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an English missionary society. His loyalty to the Mother Country was complete and understandable, but his timing was off. Like the Rev. Mr. Bliss, Peters spoke bravely and freely in defense of his convictions, passionately espousing the cause of England at this time of rising resentment toward the Crown.
The Boston Tea Party brought matters to a head in 1774. Word soon spread that the “good people of Boston” were starving as a result of a British blockade on all shipping till the tea’s owners were reimbursed. The Governor of the Colony of Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull, instructed all the clergy in the colony to urge at town meetings that a collection be token for the relief of Boston. Hebron called such a meeting, at which the Rev. Peters supported the royal interests and declared the act of the colonists in destroying the tea a “horrible crime” which they ought to pay for. Owing to his influence, the vote of sympathy and relief for the Boston sufferers from the blockade was not passed. The church in Hartford, which at that time was a sort of mission of Hebron and also under Peter’s ministry, voted similarly. Peters soon became the target of attacks by the Sons of Liberty, mobs made up of hundreds of patriots from Windham and other surrounding towns.
On one occasion he was stripped of his priestly robes, put in a cart and hauled by his own oxen to the town green and there compelled to sign a declaration of repentance for the stand he had taken. (Peters later insisted that, though threatened with tar and feathers, he did not sign.) His personal papers were examined by Sons of Liberty representatives who forced him to declare that he had not and would not write to England again. He was visited again by a mob and this time barely escaped death, thanks to the intervention of the Rev. Benjamin Pomeroy, pastor of the Hebron Congregational Church and a sympathizer with the colonists’ grievances. In his later writings, Peters acknowledged the role Pomeroy had played in saving his life. Describing the mob’s efforts to urge Dr. Pomeroy to side against “this wicked old Tory” Peters quotes Pomeroy’s reply: “I will not attend, nor give any countenance in murdering the best man in Hebron.”
With the report that another mob was forming, Peters elected to flee. He reached Boston and made his escape on a British ship, after having hidden fourteen days in a cave on the seashore with a 200-pound reward for his capture hanging over his head. His slaves – he kept more than 20 – were scattered, his property confiscated, his future blasted, and nearly all papers of the Episcopal Church in Hebron destroyed or lost.
In England, he obtained a pension from the Crown and lived in London for twenty years. During this exile, he penned the controversial “A General History of Connecticut” in 1781, which contained an entertaining and often satirical account of the Congregationalists and what he called their Puritan “Blue Laws.”
In 1794, while still in London, he was notified that the convention of Episcopal clergy in Vermont had elected him their Bishop. He accepted their call, but the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to consecrate him. In 1804, after a quarrel with the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, he was struck from the pension roll and returned to his native land. He settled in New York City; on one visit to Hebron, in 1806, it is said he was joyfully received. He died in 1826, at the age of 91, in loneliness and poverty, and was buried beside his three wives on Godfrey Hill. In 1841, his remains were moved to the present St. Peter’s cemetery, a handsome brownstone monument marking his final resting place.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, St. Peter’s parish struggled to stay alive. Thomas Brown, who had taken residence in Peters’ house after his departure, read service regularly in the church on Godfrey Hill, and there were occasional priestly visits. A letter written to Mr. Peters from the Rev. John Tyler of Christ Church, Norwich, in 1784 reads, “I have taken the whole care that has been taken of Hebron Church ever since you left it, though I must confess that I durst not go there for some time after you went away, so little was the spirit of some people, but since I have been three or four Sundays there every year.” Later he wrote, “I have made them my care, administered the Sacraments to them buried their dead, and strove to keep them alive as a church, preaching for them and encouraging them.” Baptisms and marriages were entered in the records of Christ Church, Norwich, from 1776 on.
With the cessation of hostilities and independence assured, the prayers for the royal family and pledges of loyalty to the Crown were erased from the Episcopal worship service in America. It had been these very pledges which had caused Peters to choose to flee rather than renege on the promises repeated each Sunday for decades.
After the accession of Bishop Seabury in 1785, the outlook for St. Peter’s church improved. He confirmed about 30 persons in Hebron in the fall of 1787. The part-time services of several clergymen were thereafter secured. In 1794 came the Rev. Tillotson Bronson, the church’s first resident minister since the necessarily abrupt departure of the Rev. Peters. The little church had therefore survived its first 60 years with only one resident priest – Rev. Peters – who had served only 14 years.
The likes of the controversial Bliss and Peters were never to be seen again, but the Rev. Ammi Rogers, who served the parish as rector from 1815 to 1819, certainly stirred up a minor uproar. In 1819, he was accused of sexual misconduct with a young woman who lived near Jewett City, was tried in court, found guilty and imprisoned in Norwich Jail for two years (1820- 1822). The scandal of course terminated his rectorship of St. Peter’s. Upon his release from jail, he proved before a committee representing both Houses of the General Assembly that he was innocent, supported in his appeal by the confession of the young woman who had perjured herself. But his career at St. Peter’s was finished.
A New Church, a New Beginning
In 1821, the Rev. William Jarvis was called to St. Peter’s to replace the disgraced Rogers. At this time, the parish report showed 58 families, 40 communicants, and a Sunday school of 35. This burgeoning congregation must have been bursting the sides of the tiny 30 x 58-foot church on Godfrey Hill. In 1824, the wheels were set in motion for the building of an edifice more appropriate to the parish’s size and importance in the community. The first subscription list for a new church, dated January 29, 1824, amounted to $2,263.5.0, including gifts from persons outside the parish, with the provision that the church would be built on land purchased from Judge Sylvester Gilbert. A second subscription list was raised soon after and this enabled the church to be consecrated free of debt. The cost of the structure was $5,460.69.
Built of bricks made in a local kiln and with woodwork done by a local builder, the new church was located even farther south than the most ardent ”southern party” had advocated more than a century earlier. The impressive structure was consecrated on October 19, 1826 by Bishop Brownell, who described it as the second most beautiful church in the diocese. But to Dr., John S. Peters, a nephew of the Rev. Peters, the future Governor of Connecticut and the most prominent member of the building committee, it was “Jarvis’ Folly,” because of its unconventional design. Nevertheless, a portrait of Peters which still hangs in his “mansion” next door to the church includes the ridiculed building prominently in the background, replete with the Gothic turrets and pinnacles that were removed within thirty years of completion.
The old church on Godfrey Hill was soon torn down, and all that remains from that church are three wooden candlesticks and the pewter baptismal basin, still in use today.
With a fine new church and a comfortable niche in society secured, St. Peter’s settled down to an uneventful middle age. Neither scandal nor controversy was to ring off its pristine plaster walls. The chief excitement during the next hundred years was the installation of a handsome new organ in1860, the construction of the rectory upon land given by Governor Peters, and the renovation of the interior of the church during the winter of 1871.
Hebron slipped back into obscurity. Even the coming of the railroad and a short-lived industrial boom little changed the character of the bucolic village. Indeed, its population steadily declined from a high of about 3,000 persons in the Rev. Mr. Peters’ time to little more than a thousand at the close of the century. Well into the twentieth century, the houses of the village had no running water; the streets were unlit at night; there was no high school; and the town was almost inaccessible by road. By the l920’s, when St. Peter’s impressive building was approaching its hundredth year, matters had come to a sorry pass for this once proud church. The parish and congregation consisted of the rector’s family and a handful of others.
A Patron of the Arts
But St. Peter’s fiery history was still a vivid memory, and the church was to make news again, this time in a far more constructive way. In 1923, two young alumni of Wesleyan University, Benjamin Bissell and Austin Warren, founded St. Peter’s School of Liberal and Humane Studies as a Platonic venture in adult education, the communal living of intellectuals and the adaptation of the ordered day of the monastery to the layman’s life. It met for two weeks each summer for nine years (1923-1931).
The day began with communal breakfast at the home of one of the parishioners, which had earlier been the village inn. Then came Matins at the church. From 9 a.m. to noon lectures were held at the Hebron library, later renamed for Dr. Charles J. Douglas, one of the trustees and active members of the school. After lunch, there was a period of rest or swimming, followed by a philosophic forum. Choral Evensong and Vespers concluded the “work day,” the evenings’ sociabilities revolving around simple entertainments like charades, square dancing, folk singing, or a piano recital. Much attention was given always to the church music, for the rector during most of this time, the Rev. Theodore D. Martin, was a well-known composer of hymns who had sung in some of the first American performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas.
The more or less regular lectures at the School included renowned professors from Lafayette and Trinity colleges, Boston University and Yale. The institution conferred no degrees, gave no credits and offered no courses in utilitarian subjects, yet drew scores of young university students into the town each year, stimulating intellectual life here and earning the church a wide reputation as a patron of arts and letters.
In 1938, the officers of St. Peter’s School raised money and as a memorial to the school restored the interior of the church, the “restoration” including the painting of the pews white (they had first been sage green and then stained to imitate golden oak) and the construction of a new and larger altar more suitable in size to that of the church.
Historic though it was, the St. Peter’s School wasn’t the major reason for the rebirth of the church. That came several decades later with the arrival of the highway. The State drove it right down the middle of the lovely village green and changed Hebron almost overnight from rural to suburban. New families moved in, buying the old houses and the abandoned farms and bringing an unprecedented building boom. The church shared in the rejuvenation of Hebron; in 1955 a confirmation class of 17 was the largest since 1877.
The size and increasing non-worship activities of the congregation cried out for a church hall for religious classes, club meetings and whole-parish events like dinners and celebrations. A small house across route 85 from the church had served well for years as church office and meeting place, but it was now woefully inadequate. In 1956 Phelps Hall was erected close to the church and named after Lewis Phelps, who had served the parish for many years as vestryman, warden and treasurer. Still, this building was not large enough, and in 1972 more rooms were added.
In 1976, as this history is written, St. Peter’s shows no signs of slipping into obscurity. Dances, lectures, picnics, teas grand and intimate, Christmas Fairs, tag sales, ecumenical worship services and plant sales highlight the year, while the hall is used by nursery school children and Red Cross first-aid trainers, by the Hebron Historical Society and a troupe of British actors, and scores of other community-wide events.
St. Peter’s, born in the 18th century and built for the ages in the 19th, is today every inch the 20th century Christian church, community-involved , ecumenically minded, and Christ-centered.
In writing this history of St. Peter’s Church, I could not have accomplished the task without the documents compile by Kathleen Martin Fill, daughter of The Rev. Theodore Martin, rector of St. Peter’s from 1919 to 1929. Included in her treasure trove were the excellent historic writings of Miss Susan Pendleton, noted poet and historian; Dr. Austin Warren, founder and lecturer of St. Peter’s School; Allen L. Corr, lay reader of St. Peter’s from 1929 to 1934; and Mrs. Natalie Pfanstiehl, who composed a brief but excellent account of the early St. Peter’s. The section on the architecture of the church is based in great part on the research of John Baron, Jr., a brilliant young member of the Hebron Historical Society.
Gail Doucette Wojton