The Three Churches of St. George’s Fredericksburg- Barbara P. Willis

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The first church built in Fredericksburg was by action of the Vestry of St. George’s Parish at a meeting on March 13th, 1732. Col. Henry Willis contracted to build it and the new church at Mattapony for 150,000 lbs. of tobacco.

George Home, who surveyed the newly established town of Fredericksburg (1728) was employed in June 1733 by the Vestry to lay off the two lots that had been set aside for the church when the town was divided into lots and also “to set” the church east and west as was required by English Ecclesiastical Law.

The building of the church started soon afterwards although it was not completed until June 30, 1741. The church was usable for services by the Fall of 1734 and Suzanna Livings­ton of Fredericksburg was appointed sexton for the new Church by the Vestry at its fall meeting.

The specifications for the new church were specific. It was to be a frame building, 60′ x 24′, with ten windows 7′ x 3′ with shutters, pine floors, pews wainscoated and walls wainscoated the height of the pews, walls 14′ high, each gable end of the roof “hip’ted” and the roof to be covered with Cyprus shingles. The outside wall was to be “well tarr’d”, a process described by George Carrington Mason as a mixture of tar and turpentine with which the Church was painted. The building in its exterior shape must have been similar to Lamb’s Creek Church in King George County although it is brick and larger—80′ x 34′ with four­teen windows.

There are few Colonial frame churches that have survived.

St. John’s Church, Richmond, is the most famous though much altered. St. John’s started with a 60′ x 25′ building in 1741 which makes it very close in size to the first St. George’s.

In 1753, an addition was added on the North side of St. George’s the full width and 32′ in length making a T-shaped building. A bell was given that year and a steeple added.

In 1759, a gallery was erected in the West end of the Church

In 1770, the church was repaired and a gallery erected in the new addition. In 1789, an addition was made to the south side of the Church “so as to form the said Church in­to a cross”. Also in that year, an organ was placed at the end of the singers’ gallery.

The Church was described by a local citizen”….cruciform in shape, with steeple and bell…in each projection of the cross there was a small gallery, one contained the organ, the others two pews each…a frame building, painted yellow (tar)…the pulpit was at one of the angles of the cross, highly elevated, with reading desk and clerk’s desk in front below”.

The interior drawing of the 1754 Southwark Church 60′ x 30′, in Surry County, was probably similar to the first St. George’s before the additions.

The clergy wore surplices as the vestry ordered three to be sent from England in 1729.

In 1733, the Vestry ordered pulpit cloths and cushions from England of crimson velvet with gold tassels and the initials St. G. P. on each. Two silver goblets were also ordered.

In 1789, the Vestry ordered that the pew opposite the pulpit have painted on the door in black or white letters the word STRANGERS.

The interior of the first Church at St. George’s conformed to the general custom of Anglican Colonial Churches. In the typical service according to Dr. G. M. Brydon, “Morning Prayer and Litany”, and the ante Communion were always read from the pulpit. So with the large square pews of the Colon­ial period, the congregation would face north or south as the case might be, for Morning Prayer, turn to the west for a Baptism, and to the east when the Priest stood at the Holy Table to celebrate the Holy Communion.

The Rev. Edward C. McGuire, to be minister of St. George’s for 45 years, arrived in Fredericksburg in October, 1813.He described the first Church as “an old wooden building in the shape of a cross”.

In the previous year, 1812, the Vestry had already decided that because such major repairs were needed, a new Church would be built. The first Church was razed and the corner­stone of “a large brick Church” was laid in May, 1814. On October 16, 1815, Bishop Richard Channing Moore consecrated the new Church which cost $11,000.00. The sale of the pews paid for the cost of building the Church.

Little is known of the exterior and interior features of this second Church, because the Vestry minutes after 1817 were destroyed during the Civil War.

The Vestry minutes of 1816 state that a steeple was added then along with window shutters, organ gallery, side galler­ies, and a table (on the east wall) containing “the Lord’s Prayer, Belief and Ten Commandments”. All the pews in the gallery were to be free. The seats on the right and left of each door of the galleries were reserved for “people of color.” Two free pews were reserved in the lower part of the Church. They were to be the first pews from each door under the organ gallery. This indicates there were two doors in the entrance way.

There is a puzzle. The 1836 Mutual Assurance Policy described the Church as 31′ x 72′ with an 18′ x 20′ Vestry room. The 1843 policy described the Church as 40′ x 75′ with Vestry room. The first policy could be in error.

In 1818, an ornamental chandelier was added, and a baptismal font was a gift in 1829.

In 1843, a broadside announced to all pewholders and friends the intent of the Vestry to raise money for a new Church.

This decision was influenced by the fact that the 1814 Church had been built on a foundation of oak planks only three feet below ground in an effort to avoid graves in the Church yard. This construction error caused cracks and breaks in the walls and actual sinking of the walls. The new Church was to be financed by the sale of pews.

Philip Slaughter’s History of St. George’s Parish, printed in 1847, shows a proposed drawing for the new Church by the New York architect Richard Upjohn. There is no known record who the architect was of the present church building which Bishop William Meade consecrated April 22, 1849. The cost of the building was $19,000.00. The sale of the pews the day after the consecration raised more than $24,000.00, which more than paid for the new building.

The Mutual Assurance policies of 1855 and 1857 give the value of the Church at $20,000.00 and it was insured for $12,500.00. The building was described as brick, 95′ x 55′ with a 22′ x 23′ vestry room and a tin roof.

Fortunately, the 1849 seating plan has survived. This shows the chancel arrangement with the pulpit in the center, desks on either side and table in front of the pulpit. This chan­cel area was in front of the arch in the area between the side pews.

Because of the newspaper account of the July 19th, 1854, fire that destroyed the Vestry room and chancel area, we can reconstruct the relationship of the original chancel and Vestry room. “The Vestry room communicates with the Church by a door, and by an open space above….”

This indicates a screen with a door stood in the archway or just behind it. The three windows high in the east wall would be visible above the screen. The Vestry room, which today is part of the chancel, was behind the screen and had a ground level window on the north wall and the rear wall.

By May 1855, the fire damage had been repaired and side galleries added. The original chancel set-up must have been restored after the fire because of Civil War descriptions which mention “….large edifice was crowded with soldiers. They filled the chancel and covered the pulpit stairs” and “a nurse is bolstering up a wounded officer in the area behind the altar”.

Bishop William Meade, Bishop of Virginia during this period, insisted on churches following the Calvinistic chancel plan which had the pulpit as the focal point in the east wall, with the Holy Table placed in front of the pulpit. He felt the main emphasis should be on preaching not communion.

It is very likely that the original pulpit in St. George’s was of the type made popular by Bishop John Henry Hobert (1775-1830) of New York. This was a high pulpit reached by stairs. Edwin McGuire’s brother, John P. McGuire, was minister of Vauter’s Church in Essex County when the Church was modernized in 1827. A Hobert style pulpit was placed on the north wall with the Holy Table in front of it.

The church suffered considerable damage during the Civil War. The church building had been hit twenty-five times by cannon shot during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.

In 1863 the church was used for the religious revival meetings held for General Lee’s troops. After the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, the church became a hospital for the Union wounded.

After the Civil War, the church’s war damage was repaired. This included a new roof of cypress shingles, repair of the church yard enclosure, repair of the furnaces, organ, walls, gas fixtures and the steeple. The work was completed by April 1866. The furnaces never worked properly after the repairs and had to be replaced by new ones in 1868. The reports of the Vestry on the repairs from the war damage did not mention any changes in the chancel set-up. Money was solicited for the repair of “our dismantled sanctuary”. It can be assumed that the original chancel set-up was kept.

No mention of any chancel changes are mentioned until 1876 when the Vestry gave approval for a committee to receive contributions for a memorial window to the Reverend Edward McGuire. The committee was authorized “to make such alterations in the chancel and vestry room as they may deem necessary … subject to the approval of the vestry”. We do not know the details of the alterations approved by the vestry because the minutes of the next vestry meeting were not writ­ten up as the Register was absent. However, it is possible to deduce the alterations from the architect’s blueprints and specifications in the 1925 renovation and from the pre 1925 photographs.

At this time, there was a general reaction against Bishop Meade’s and Bishop Whittle’s Calvinistic chancel arrangement. Their influence lasted roughly from 1839 to 1874. The people and the clergy wanted to return to what they considered the proper Anglican set-up with the Holy Table surrounded by a rail and placed against the east wall and the pulpit and font outside of the chancel. This movement back to a more Anglican form included the use of the cross, candles and flowers on the Holy Table and vested choir and clergy. None of these were allowed during Bishop Meade’s or Whittle’s time.

In 1876, St. George’s changed the original Meade influenced chancel area. A partition floor to ceiling was placed across half of the original 22′ x 23′ vestry room and three stained glass windows were placed in the partition. These were the first of fifteen stained glass windows installed in the church These three windows in the partition were the same size and same relative location as the rear wall windows. The committee apparently wanted to retain the original design of the church. This did make it possible for the stained glass windows later to be placed in the rear wall windows. The original screen with door was placed as a reredos against the partition and its door was used as the entrance way to the reduced Vestry room. The Holy Table was placed against the partition and the pulpit was placed to the right in the original chancel area.

By 1890, the interior walls had Fresco decorations. In 1895, the present antique brass lecturn was given to St. George’s and in 1897, the ladies of the Church gave the present pulpit. In 1909, the Vestry gave permission for the brass cross and flower vases to be used regularly on the Holy Table. In 1913, the choir was given permission to wear vestments.

The Meade-Whittle influence had been completely removed.

In 1925, the Vestry authorized the choir and organ to be moved from the loft to the chancel area. This required a rearrangement of the chancel-vestry room area. Philip Stern of Fredericksburg was hired as the architect to do this work.

This rearrangement caused the following changes:

  1. The partition was removed.
  2. The reredos was placed on the rear (east) wall.
  3. The three stain glass windows were placed in the three window openings in the rear wall.
  4. The vestry room was eliminated and incorporated as part of the enlarged chancel.
  5. The ground floor window on the rear wall was bricked up.
  6. The ground floor window on the north wall was placed in the north wall of the addition.
  7. An exterior addition to the north wall of the chancel-vestry room.
  8. A stairway to the basement rooms and a vesting room were placed in the addition.
  9. A door was cut from the new chancel area to the addition.
  10. A door was cut from the left side of the nave to the addition.
  11. The four side pews on the left side of the nave were removed.
  12. The chancel floor level was changed, the chancel ceiling re-plastered and the choir stalls and the organ added.
  13. An organ pipe loft was in the addition. At some period, possibly 1925, the last row of pews in the west end was removed.

With the exception of the reredos (which was stored in the loft in 1955), this is the chancel arrangement seen today.

All the original windows in the church (except those in the stairway and down stairs) have had the original small diamond shaped panes removed and replaced by stained glass. The last window was done in 1943.