St. Peter’s Parish Profile
Parish and Community History 1734-2004
The settlement of Hebron, which began in 1704, had less to do with religion than with the search for a better economic and social future. When Hebron was incorporated in 1708, it was primarily an agricultural community. Politics could not be separated from the religious realm.
When the settlers sought to become a town, colonial law required establishment of a Congregationalist society in the town. A call went out for a minister, and the squabbles began over the location of a meetinghouse. The squabblers came to be known as the northern and southern parties.
The site selected for a meetinghouse would typically become the crossings of future roads and be a focus for the center of a town, thus affecting property values of the landowners. Some wanted it established half-mile north of the existing traffic light in the Godfrey Hill section of Hebron, thereby improving the circumstances of those in the Gilead and Andover ctions. Others wished a site further south. The dispute. lasted for several years and was finally decided by a special committee of the General Assembly. The original meetinghouse was built in 1716, and was located at the approximate center of the existing town. The townsfolk worshipped as one, but did not put aside their differences.
In 1733, needing a larger meetinghouse, about fifty people, “dissatisfied and partly uneasy,” petitioned the town to be set off and secure their own rector. The request was denied, and coincidentally, before the disagreement could be resolved, the meetinghouse burned to the ground.
The Reverend John Bliss, a graduate of Yale and an ordained Congregational clergyman, was the first clergyman in Hebron. Unable to resolve the dispute between the northern and southern parties however, he resigned in 1733, although he continued to hold services in his home. He and five of his northern party supporters were tried in Hartford, accused of “carrying on Divine worship contrary to the statutes of the colony.” They were acquitted on condition of declaring themselves for the Church of England.
The Reverend Bliss gave land at Godfrey Hill for the first Episcopal church; it is several miles north of the current site. Because he needed to be ordained in England, he served as a lay reader. Worship began at the Godfrey Hill site in 1734, when construction began, and, due to financial constraints, continued for 31 years. It was the sixth Episcopal church to be established in the colony. The Reverend Bliss died in 1741. Four subsequent candidates died while traveling to seek ordination in England.
The first ordained (1759) rector of Saint Peter’s was Samuel Peters, a native of Hebron. He served as its settled full-time rector for fourteen years, until he was forced to flee for England after being charged as a Tory in 1774. He was succeeded by a series of part-time rectors until 1821.
The Hebron area began to develop its residential and commercial identity. Mills, saw mills, gristmills, and light manufacturing were the main sources of income through the century.
In 1821, the Reverend William Jarvis was called to Saint Peter’s, a parish of 58 households, with a Sunday School enrollment of 35. Fund-raising for a new and larger church began in 1824. Enough money was raised to construct the church at a cost of $5,460.69. The millwork and bricks were made locally. The original church at Godfrey Hill was torn down leaving only the cemetery. All that remains from this structure are three wooden candlesticks and the pewter baptismal basin that is still used today.
Bishop Brownell consecrated the new church on October 19, 1826. He described the structure as “the second most beautiful” in the diocese. The parish settled into its new building, and oversaw the installation of the unique and handsome Johnson organ in 1857, the construction of the rectory on donated land, installation of stained glass windows of a Louis Tiffany style, and several major interior renovations over the next 100 years.
A highlight of the first thirty years of the 20th century at Saint Peter’s is the establishment of Saint Peter’s School , which was active from 1923 to 1931. Two young alumni of Wesleyan University, Benjamin Bissell and Austin Warren, founded Saint Peter’s School of Liberal and Humane Studies for students of college age. Professors from Lafayette and Trinity Colleges, Boston University, and Yale University were regular lecturers for several weeks in each of nine summers. Saint Peter’s School offered neither degrees nor credits, yet it drew scores of university students into town each year, stimulating the area’s intellectual life and earning the church a reputation as a patron of arts and letters.
The great hurricane of 1938 caused major damage throughout Hebron, including the loss of a large part of the church roof, resulting in damage to the interior. “Alumni” of Saint Peter School raised funds for the restoration of the interior, with construction of a new and larger altar.
During and after World War II, the expansion of Connecticut’s defense industry encouraged growth in eastern Connecticut. A major highway connecting Hartford with eastern Connecticut promoted further growth. New families moved in, restoring old houses and farms, and bringing an unprecedented building boom. With this growth, the small house across the street from the church which was being used as a parish hall and for Sunday School was now too small to properly meet the needs of the parish. In 1956, the existing parish hall was built and enlarged in 1972. The hall was named after Lewis Phelps, who had served as a parish leader for many years. Members of his family remain members of the parish today.
Phelps Hall has long been a center of parish life, as well as the site of community and ecumenical activities, and the home of a cooperative nursery school. The Hebron Center Nursery School, having been an excellent tenant and neighbor for nearly 30 years, will relocate this fall. As we continue to grow, the limited capacity of Phelps Hall to meet the needs of the parish and community is an issue of high priority.
The church property has seen a number of changes and improvements in this time period There have been modifications to the church’s interior, renovations to the bell tower and rectory, the implementation of universal access to the church, a new parking lot signage and exterior lighting, and a “ready to go” plan for a Memorial Garden for cremated remains. A strategic plan for development and capital improvements pends completion, i.e. the development of a detailed short- and long-term action plan.
Certainly the members of Saint Peter’s have shared many experiences with the rectors, settled and interim, who have been called to the church over the years. All have had an impact on congregational development and on the spiritual journeys of those who are members now and those who have moved elsewhere. Since 1972, we have experienced the 23- year pastorate of The Reverend William Persing, who retired in 1995, three interim assignments, and the nearly six-year pastorate of the Reverend Robert Duval who retired in 2003.
The Challenges of Growth
The communities from which parishioners are drawn are characterized as rapidly developing residential suburbs. Indeed, the eastern portion of the state has become the focus of major development in this century. Hebron is engaged in a significant development of its center, which affects Saint Peter’s and its real property. Saint Peter’s seeks a congregational development plan that is both reflective of and responsive to, the growth of its communities.