Historic St. James Episcopal Church
In New England’s colonial days, church and state were essentially one, with the Congregationalists being the established church (except in Rhode Island). New London’s First (and only) Church was the spiritual hub of this community, and some of its early ministers also served as Governor and state officials. Missionaries of the Church of England eventually found their way to New London to minister to those desiring sacrament and worship according to the Book of Common Prayer.
On September 17, 1725, a small group of local men signed a petition and pledged funds for the erection of a church wherein those loyal to the Church of England could worship, thus challenging the religious monopoly of First Church. Its first resident Rector was Samuel Seabury (1732-1743), father of Bishop Samuel Seabury.
Ironically, this “church of England” was burned, along with the city of New London, by British troops under the command of Benedict Arnold in 1781. Three years after the burning of New London, a new church building was being planned. In a bold move, the congregation invited the Right Reverend Samuel Seabury to serve as Rector after being consecrated a Bishop in Aberdeen, Scotland. As a loyalty oath to the crown was part of the ordination process and that was no longer possible since the American Revolution had been won, Seabury traveled to Aberdeen and was consecrated there on November 14, 1784. So it was that Samuel Seabury came to New London as the first and only bishop in America.
Until his death in 1796, Bishop Seabury labored to rebuild the local congregation. He traveled throughout New England confirming congregants and ordaining priests. He worked with other priests, who subsequently were able to be consecrated as bishops in England, to form the Episcopal Church in the USA. His consecration marks the beginning of the worldwide Anglican Communion, for which he is the first Bishop sent out as an “episkopos” or “overseer” beyond the British Isles.
While St. James may have been destined to become one of the leading parishes in the Diocese of Connecticut, it is Bishop Seabury’s tenure as Rector (1785-1796) that gives it a place of eminence in the history of the American Episcopal Church, and makes it a notable shrine of the Anglican Communion throughout the world. The Hallam Chapel, below the high altar at St. James, is also his final resting place.
Seabury’s church was unpretentious, but by the middle of the 19th century, New London had become the nation’s second most important whaling port. As fortunes increased, New London’s civic and religious edifices reflected the city’s prosperity and St. James was no exception to this trend. Land was purchased on the corner of Huntington and Federal Streets. Rector Robert Hallam led the challenge to erect a new building and was himself one of the largest contributors to the enterprise. Famed English architect Richard Upjohn was retained and developed an early version of Gothic Revival design that was to become “the rage”. Especially noted among his work is Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.
St James is designed in the Gothic Revival Style, fashioned of New Jersey Freestone and follows the cruciform plan common in the Medieval period. Construction began in 1847 and the Church was completed and consecrated in 1850. The building remains much as it did in 1850. The rather bare shell eventually lent itself to the ritual revival that reintroduced medieval symbolism and elements such as crosses, candles, vested choirs, divided chancel and stained glass. The Upjohn building became home to a procession of memorials, including an assortment of stained glass representing that craft’s development in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is said to include the largest number of Tiffany windows in any single New England building.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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