Historical Notes

A Detailed History of Immanuel

Immanuel Church in Mechancsville VAThe Consecration of the Church

On Monday, 3 April 1854 the day began early for the Right Reverend John Johns, Assistant Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. He had had a busy weekend. On the prior Sabbath morning Bishop Johns had confirmed eleven people at St. John’s Church, in the City of Richmond. On Sunday afternoon, in Richmond’s fashionable “Court End” district, the Bishop preached and confirmed seventeen people at Monumental Church. Bishop Johns, the Diocese of Virginia’s fourth Bishop, had been the first Bishop consecrated in Virginia. In twelve years of service as Assistant Bishop, Bishop Johns had established himself as a great evangelist, as a careful planner who “performed with perfection.” Careful planning was a necessity for a Bishop in mid-nineteenth century Virginia. The state of West Virginia had not been formed, so there was only one Diocese, with two Bishops. In tending his flock Bishop Johns traveled “on foot, on horseback, on boat, buggy and early railroad” to visit the many parishes under his care. 

Careful planning brought Bishop Johns to the village of Old Church, in Hanover County, on this April day in 1854. Old Church was located at a distance of three hours from Richmond. During the previous year the Old Church congregation of Saint Paul’s Parish had erected a new building, and had been waiting for the consecration of this house of worship. The church slated for consecration would be the fourth building to serve the lower portion of St. Paul’s Parish.

The Early Community of Old Church

A vibrant tobacco-based economy had brought prosperity and development to this portion of Hanover County during Virginia’s colonial period, and a church constructed in 1718 at a crossroads which became known as “Old Church” had been modified more than once to alleviate crowding. In 1774, at the height of colonial affluence, the Vestry of this lower church met at Hanover Town, a nearby tobacco-port on the Pamunkey River, to discuss plans for “the building of a large commodious brick church, eighty feet long and thirty-five feet wide, with a cross projecting twenty foot on each side and thirty-five foot wide. . . .” Three years later, during the Revolutionary War, the Established Church in the Colony of Virginia was stripped of its tax-supported status, and without sufficient revenue, the congregation of the lower church could not complete its project.

One writer has described the “transition from the Established Church of England to the Protestant Episcopal Church of a new and free nation” as a “harsh blow” to the Church. Bishop Johns had been ordained at a time when great missionary zeal was required to restore the Episcopal Church as a mainstream denomination.

During the early years of the nineteenth century the Old Church congregation had shared its worship space with members of the Baptist church, and with Baptist followers influenced by the teachings of one Alexander Campbell. The Campbellites later organized themselves as the Disciples of Christ. Although three religious groups used the building at Old Church, repairs were not made on a timely basis, and by the 1840’s, the building was in sad shape.

How The Building of The Church Was Made Possible

A young man called George Washington Bassett, a great-nephew of Martha Custis Washington, embraced the missionary spirit prevalent in the Episcopal Church and used his money and influence to effect change. Young Bassett had deep roots in Saint Paul’s Parish. In 1688 the colonial Vestry had instructed his forbear, William Bassett, a churchwarden, to arrange for repairs to the first building used by Anglicans in what would become Hanover County. Washington Bassett, a native of Hanover County, had lived near Fredericksburg for most of his married life. In 1843, to provide better management for the extensive plantations he had inherited in the counties of Hanover, King William, and New Kent; Bassett moved to Hanover and built a house called “Clover Lea.” In Hanover and in St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent, and in St. David’s Parish, King William, Bassett organized Vestries and paid travel expenses for a minister to come out from Richmond to hold services where no Episcopal minister had served full-time for more than fifty years.

From the Old Church congregation in 1845, Robert Tomlin was sent to the General Convention (Diocesan Council), held in Richmond. Six years later, in May 1851, George Washington Bassett, Register of the Old Church Vestry, reported that the parish had been without regular services for about ten months. The Reverend William Norwood, retired Rector of Richmond’s most elite churches, Monumental and Saint Paul’s, had promised to preach at Old Church once a month, “while not otherwise engaged.” Mr. Bassett reported thirteen communicants at Old Church.

The Reverend Mr. Norwood, said to have been in poor health when he agreed to assist at Old Church, benefited from his time in the country. In 1852, as Rector, Old Church, Saint Paul’s Parish, Mr. Norwood reported a total of twenty-six communicants. The congregation, which he described as “very flourishing,” had raised $2,000 to build a new church. Mr. Norwood had been too modest to report that he had raised one thousand dollars from his former parishioners at Saint Paul’s Church. George Washington Bassett had been so touched by Mr. Norwood’s gesture that he had contributed another thousand dollars from his own pocket. Thus, in 1853, Mr. Norwood reported that, in Old Church, a “neat and commodious brick church” was under construction. 

For the site of its new church, the Old Church congregation of the Protestant Episcopal Church had purchased one and a quarter acres about six hundred yards below the village of Old Church. Lewis Johnson, considered a master builder, was contracted to build the new edifice. Johnson paid attention to detail, and in 1848 his expertise had landed a contract for a new courthouse in Powhatan County. The church he would build would be an example of Gothic architecture, a building style popular during the middle of the nineteenth century. Turrets would adorn the face of the building, and an interior arch, separating the nave from the sanctuary, would bring one’s focus to the Holy Table and to the semicircular communion rail dominating the chancel. In keeping with tradition, the church would have two side aisles, and no center aisle.

So, on 3 April 1854 Bishop John Johns came to Old Church to consecrate a unique building which had been the product of missionary efforts sparked by his own evangelism. The church was located in Saint Paul’s Parish, yet the name “Saint Paul’s” had been given to a church consecrated at Hanover Courthouse ten years earlier. The contract for the new church had been let by the “Old Church congregation of the Episcopal Church.” In his report to the General Convention, Bishop Johns was succinct when he wrote, “ (April) 3d, I consecrated Immanuel Church, Hanover. The sentence of consecration was read by the Rector (William Norwood); service by the Rev. Messrs. Woodbridge and Kepler; sermon by myself.” The choice of Immanuel as the name for the new church was considered fitting, as, in Hebrew the name means, “God with us.”

Immanuel and St. Paul's Hanover Courthouse

By May 1855 the Reverend David Caldwell had become Rector of Immanuel Church, Saint Paul’s Parish. The Reverend George S. Carraway assumed charge of the church two years later. In Old Church, Mr. Carraway found twenty-four white communicants drawn from twelve families. He found no parish register, so he became the first nineteenth century minister to document life in this portion of Saint Paul’s Parish. And, events which transpired during Mr. Carraway’s ministry would affect the parish for the next one hundred years.

Before 1857, there had been two churches in Saint Paul’s Parish, Immanuel, or the “lower church,” and Saint Paul’s, the “upper church,” at Hanover Courthouse. Prior to Mr. Carraway’s arrival, the two congregations had existed separately. At the time of Immanuel’s consecration, life at Saint Paul’s had lacked organization, and the congregation there had been described as “small, but regular in their attendance.” Since the two congregations were struggling, Saint Paul’s became a “yoked” parish, with services held alternately at the two churches.

Mr. Carraway shepherded the people of Saint Paul’s Parish through the brutal years of the American Civil War. In May 1862 the presence of enemy forces prevented Mr. Carraway or a lay delegate from representing the parish at the Annual Council of the Episcopal Church, held in Richmond. During the next year Mr. Carraway was allowed to leave Old Church at least once, to officiate at a wedding held at “Blenheim,” near Hanover Courthouse. Heated military campaigns in 1864 wreaked havoc in Hanover County, and Old Church was within enemy lines for an extended period of time. This meant that neighbors were not allowed to have contact with each other, and the schedule of services at Immanuel Church was irregular at best. On rare occasions before the battle at Cold Harbor, the Reverend Mr. Carraway was permitted, in the company of a “guard,” to visit his nearest neighbor, George Washington Bassett. With the liturgy for his family’s Sabbath observance.

Saint Paul’s Parish was a community of farmers and planters, and one legacy of the Civil War was a prolonged economic depression. Life was something of a struggle, and Immanuel Church received help from the Missionary Society of the Diocese of Virginia for several years. On 5 November 1866 Bishop Johns confirmed twelve people at Immanuel Church. The Reverend Mr. Carraway died during the next year, and his position as Rector was filled in 1869 by the Reverend B. Elliott Habersham. By this time, the Immanuel congregation had forty-six members.

Immanuel Expanded

During Mr. Habersham’s tenure at Immanuel, repairs were made to the church roof, the church was painted, and a parishioner, Dr. Carter Wormeley, donated a reed, or “pump,” organ to the church. The Vestry appointed a committee of four women of the church to suggest further improvements to the church building and grounds. The chancel was recessed, and the semi-circular communion rail was removed. Three stained glass windows were installed, a “handsomely carved” walnut pulpit and a Holy Table were purchased, and a marble baptismal font was donated as a memorial to a deceased parishioner. The church’s financial situation improved, and help from the Diocesan Missionary Society was no longer needed. With the church in such good shape, Mr. Habersham decided to move to Oregon.

“Brother Hep’s” Tenure

The Reverend Sewell Stavely Hepburn, who came to Hanover County in the autumn of 1881, would hold the longest tenure of a Rector of Saint Paul’s Parish. Unlike his predecessors, who had had no children or just one offspring, Mr. Hepburn came to Saint Paul’s Parish with a growing family. Consequently, he served up to four churches at one time in order to meet his financial obligations. In addition to Immanuel and Saint Paul’s, Mr. Hepburn assumed duties at Saint Peter’s, New Kent and at St. David’s, King William. On at least one occasion, he performed a marriage service at Acquinton Church, one of four churches standing in King William at the end of Virginia’s colonial period. In 1894 he startled the Saint Paul’s Parish vestries with his acceptance of a call to Saint Martin’s Parish, in upper Hanover County. Mr. Hepburn would continue to serve Saint Paul’s, despite the removal of his family to the Saint Martin’s Rectory. 

During Mr. Hepburn’s service, a group of young ladies had organized themselves as the Immanuel Junior Auxiliary in November 1896. This group focused on missions, but a large portion of the time spent by these young women expanded the programs of Immanuel Church. Miss Rebecca Ruffin, a member of Immanuel Church at this time, wrote to her sister in December 1901 saying, “We are busy now getting ready for Xmas. Besides the tree for the Sunday School, an oyster supper is proposed & we have appointed the last night of this year as a suitable time for it.” Miss Ruffin hoped the proceeds from this supper would go to the “Hall Fund,” to construct a parish hall

Mr. Hepburn took his duties as Rector seriously. Entries in the Immanuel Church Register begun by Mr. Hepburn shortly after his arrival attest to his faithfulness to the people of his parish, regardless of race or religious denomination. Most of his parishioners addressed him as “Brother Hep,” because of deep affection inspired by his genuine personality. Mr. Hepburn preached his last sermon in October 1902. Shortly after his departure the Vestry sold the Rectory acquired by the parish before the Civil War.

Continued Growth - The Parish Hall

In 1904 the Reverend Stephen Southall accepted the call as Rector of Saint Paul’s Parish. Miss Jane Ruffin, Miss Rebecca Ruffin’s sister, purchased the brick portion of the eighteenth-century Old Church Tavern as a Rectory for the parish, and it was home to the Southall family for the next ten years. And, in 1906, just two years after Mr. Southall began his ministry here, construction of the Immanuel Church Parish Hall was completed. This building became a center of parish life. Many community activities were held here. One announcement went as follows:

   Christmas Entertainment at the Parish Hall

   Friday, December 27, 1907

   For benefit of Immanuel Church

   Supper and refreshments served, 5:00 – 10:00 p.m.

   A play, music, etc. begins at 7:00 p.m.

   Admission 15 cents, children 10 cents

In 1917, more than ten years after the completion of the Parish Hall, a Vestry Room was added to the rear of the church. This room was equipped with a chimney, so the Vestry could meet in comfort even in winter.

"Mr. Chilton" at Old Church

The Reverend Samuel Blackwell Chilton became Rector of Saint Paul’s Parish in 1924. By this time a Rectory had been built at Hanover Courthouse, and Mr. Chilton lived there. In many parts of the county people still traveled in horse-drawn conveyances, but, in both congregations served by Mr. Chilton there were enough automobiles to get him to and from Old Church to lead worship on the first and third Sundays of the month. Mr. Chilton served the parish during the lean years of America’s Great Depression, when many rural churches existed in a “half alive” status. Besides Immanuel Church, Bethlehem Presbyterian Church was located in Old Church. To bridge the gap in Mr. Chilton’s visits to Immanuel, services were held at Bethlehem on the second and fourth Sundays. 

Because of the shortage of funds during the Depression years, the women of the Ladies Auxiliary played an increasing role in providing money for parish projects. Turkey suppers arranged by this group became famous. In December 1929 such a supper brought in $69.84. Four years later the Vestry decided to build a new woodshed. The Auxiliary decided that this would be a good time to construct a new privy, or “specialist,” at one end of the building. At the same time leaks were discovered in the Parish House roof, so all efforts on behalf of a woodshed were tabled until 1935, when the Vestry gave the “go-ahead” for the project. The women raised the money, which included $25 for materials and $15 for labor. During the next year Immanuel’s first Altar Guild chairperson was appointed from this group of industrious ladies.

The people of his parish loved Mr. Chilton, and it was a sad day when he announced that he had been appointed Archdeacon of the Diocese of Virginia. At his last service at Immanuel in 1941, a silver ciborium was consecrated to commemorate his ministry. Mr. Chilton was later elected Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia.

Immanuel Comes Into Its Own

On the heels of Mr. Chilton’s departure the United States became embroiled in the Second World War, and many young men entered the armed forces from Saint Paul’s Parish. The Reverend Sydney Swann, Immanuel’s minister by that time, left the parish to serve as a Navy chaplain. In 1943 the Ladies Auxiliary sent twenty-three packages to boys overseas. The end of this conflict brought the Reverend Thom Blair to the parish for a period of three years. During his last year here, in 1952, Old Church Parish was separated from Saint Paul’s Parish by the Diocese of Virginia.

In 1953, the Reverend Jennings Wise Hobson was named Rector of Saint Paul’s Church, Hanover Courthouse, and Immanuel Church, Old Church Parish. For a few years Mr. Hobson lived in the Rectory provided by Saint Paul’s Church. In 1957 the relationship which had existed between the two churches for one hundred years was dissolved, and Mr. Hobson and his family moved to a new Rectory which had been completed in Old Church. In that same year the Vestry of Saint David’s Church, Aylett, King William County, approached Immanuel’s Vestry about becoming a companion parish. This was accomplished, and the Old Church Rectory would serve as the parochial residence for both Immanuel and Saint David’s for the next twenty-five years. Mr. Hobson served at Immanuel until 1960 with his appointment as Archdeacon of the Diocese. After his retirement in 1982, Mr. Hobson returned to Old Church with his wife, Isobel.

In 1963, The Reverend Morton Townsend came to serve at Immanuel and St. David’s. His tenure was seven years. Mr. Townsend and his wife, Nancy Moulton, and their four children continued the process of the new Rectory being a “family” residence. In a community of horse loving people, the Townsend children endeared themselves with their equestrian pursuits. On more than one occasion the family’s donkey, “Soul Sister,” participated in the Palm Sunday procession.

In addition to the responsibilities of his own cure, Mr. Townsend served as Priest-in-Charge of the newly-formed Church of the Creator, on the Mechanicsville Turnpike near Lee-Davis High School, from 1965 until 1968. In 1965, the people of Immanuel Church decided to build a sacristy to provide more space for the Altar Guild. A few years before this, a hurricane had damaged the largest of the stained-glass windows installed during the nineteenth century. Plans for the new room were altered to include a skylight for the protection of the old window, and to allow in the sunlight. Mr. Townsend also coordinated volunteer labor for the construction of a scout house, and Immanuel Church continues the sponsorship of a scout troop.

Immanuel Continues to Grow

The Reverend Alan Avery moved to Old Church from Saint Margaret’s School, in Tappahannock, in 1972. During his time as Rector the church received a bequest of $250,000 from the estate of Dorothy Briel Perrow, long-time owner of “Clover Lea,” the home of George Washington Bassett. This bequest gave the parish an education in stewardship. Careful management of the Perrow bequest allowed the Vestry to make significant structural repairs to the church and to refurbish its interior. The Vestry also purchased a five-acre tract adjoining the church property for future expansion, and, by the time of Mr. Avery’s departure, dialogue had begun around the subject of what to do about the 1906 parish hall.

The Reverend Neal Goldsborough was the last minister to serve Immanuel and St. David’s Churches as a “yoked parish.” After his tenure, both churches became “full-time.” The “parish hall” question dominated the early months of the ministry of Mr. Goldsborough. In June 1984 the Right Reverend Robert Bruce Hall, Bishop of Virginia, consecrated a new parish house for the people of Immanuel Church. The construction of this building was the last capital expenditure made from the money left by Dorothy Perrow. The “Perrow Fund,” set aside solely for charitable purposes, was created with the balance of the Perrow bequest. This fund is now managed by the Trustees of the Old Church Foundation.

Two years after Mr. Goldsborough’s departure, the Reverend Susan Ellyn Goff, the first woman to serve as Rector of Immanuel Church, began her duties. Immanuel’s new parish house had been constructed with an eye toward outreach, and, early in Susan Goff’s ministry of eight years, the Immanuel Church Cherub School was established. Also during her ministry, the parish began its “TGIF Suppers” on Friday nights as a means of fundraising and as an outreach activity. Many neighbors and friends of Immanuel continue to enjoy these nights of fellowship in the community. Susan served as Dean of Region 11, and was elected to the Diocesan Standing Committee.

The Reverend Anthony Pompa served Immanuel from 1995 until 1998. His ministry saw the continued growth in the parish community with new people arriving as the Hanover County area developed. Under Mr. Pompa’s leadership, Immanuel focused its energies on developing its outreach ministry and its music programs. Coordinated by Immanuel’s minister of music, Jimmy Hicks, the “Music in the Old Church” programs were created. Using the beautiful setting of the church, programs showcasing a wide variety of musical styles have been presented. Mr. Pompa left Immanuel to serve the Diocese of Virginia as Assistant to the Bishop for Congregational and Ministry Development.

The Reverend Webster Gibson served as rector of Immanuel from 1999 until 2007, when he was called to Christ Church, Winchester. Webster came to Immanuel after serving at historic Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg. He and his wife, Rebecca, and their three young children, created a lively, welcoming presence at Immanuel, where all were actively involved, and in the wider community. Webster comes from a long line of Episcopal priests (and bishops), including his late father, the Reverend Churchill Gibson Jr., chaplain and associate dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary.

The Reverend David H. Knight served as our Interim Rector until February, 2009, while we searched for a new rector. Immanuel continues to be a vital parish in the Old Church community through the parish’s various ministries. The parish continues to grow as it welcomes in the next generation who will carry on Immanuel’s faithful witness of Christian life and service into the future.

We wish to express our sincere thanks to Mr. Steve Colvin for his generous help researching and writing this history.