From tiny mustard seeds, a community of faith grows . . .
In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God will grow from the very smallest beginnings. In the earliest history of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church the year 1889 is referred to as the “founding date” of the parish, for it was in that year that a small group of dedicated Episcopalians began regular, if sporadic, worship services in Smithfield, North Carolina. These were held in private homes and public buildings, there being no Episcopal church in Smithfield or Johnston County. Some services were conducted by The Right Reverend Joseph Blount Cheshire, Jr., Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina. Attendance was often as meager as four or five. It was from these tiny “mustard seeds” that the community of faith that came to be called St. Paul’s Episcopal Church took root and began to grow.
An old house of worship made new . . .
In 1903, the deacons of the Smithfield Baptist Church voted to sell their church building and the lot on which it stood at the corner of Second and Church Streets to the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Built in 1835, this was the oldest church building in Smithfield. The Church and property were purchased, on behalf of the Diocese, by Bishop Cheshire. Congressman Edward W. Pou, a faithful communicant of the Church, helped to negotiate the purchase. The Church was consecrated by Bishop Cheshire on May 28, 1911. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has been on this site ever since.
The first task was to make the old church new; renovations were required in order to make the old Baptist church suitable for worship in the Episcopal tradition. Among other things, the slave galleries had to be removed. In the course of the remodeling, three small but exquisite stained glass windows were removed and stored away, only to gather dust for the next eighty years before being resurrected and “born again.”
It is interesting to note that eight years went by from the time the Church was acquired until the time of its consecration. It was the rule at that time that no Episcopal church could be consecrated until it was free of debt. During these eight years, the debt of the Church was retired, and it enjoys debt-free status to this day. The Church’s status as a mission rather than a parish continued, however.
Years of struggle . . .
In his history of the Church, which was written in 1949, the Rev. Ralph R. Kimball characterized the years 1913 to 1931 as years of struggle. Rev. Kimball reported that during this period, attendance at the services was very poor, and that he had been to church many times when the only people present were the priest, his father, his mother, and himself, and that the active membership of the church was seldom greater than eight to ten communicants.
And so the lesson of history is that only the resolve of the faithful few kept the doors of St. Paul’s open during its years of struggle. Of even greater significance, from these long-departed souls we learn anew the true meaning of Christian faith: the certain knowledge that, just when things look darkest, somehow the Lord will provide.
Turning point: The Lawrence bequest . . .
On March 29, 1946, Mary Hastings Lawrence, a faithful parishioner of St. Paul’s for many years, departed this life. In 1936, she had written her last will and testament in which she stated that, “It is my wish and desire that [these funds] shall be used for the purpose of constructing a new plant of buildings dedicated to my memory.”
The Lawrence bequest was arguably the single most transformative event in the history of St. Paul’s Church. For the first time, the Church had substantial assets with which to plan its future and accomplish its ministry. The immediate impact of the bequest was that it enabled the Church to become self-supporting, and to employ its first full-time priest. Of even greater significance, the bequest enabled the Church to attain parish status and to begin planning for a new physical plant, just as Mrs. Lawrence had wished.
A new plant of buildings, for the Glory of God . . .
In late-1946, the Vestry began planning for a new plant of buildings. This project took seven years to complete. It was decided that the best course of action would be to build a new parish house first, followed by a new church. On June 12, 1949, Trinity Sunday, ground was broken for the Parish House. The cornerstone for the building was laid on August 21st, and the completed building was consecrated later that year by the Rt. Rev. Edwin A. Penick, Bishop of North Carolina. At the consecrating service the opening hymn was “The Church’s One Foundation;” the concluding hymn was “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”
Coincident with this service, Miss Mattie Sanders, one of the Church’s oldest parishioners, placed a small copper box, containing items of historical interest, behind the cornerstone, which was then installed. The box was extracted in 2011 on the occasion of the centennial of the Church’s consecration, and was refilled with additional artifacts, to the end that the history of the Church will be preserved for posterity and not forgotten by future generations.
Following the consecration of the Parish House, the Vestry turned its attention to the crowning glory of Mrs. Lawrence’s cherished dream – a new church. On February 4, 1953 the little wooden church, in use since 1903, was deconsecrated. A new era for St. Paul’s was about to begin.
Ground was broken for the new church on April 26, 1953, and the cornerstone was laid on August 30th. Bishop Penick officiated at the service, and the Church’s rector, the Rev. Charles Hein, highlighted the historical significance of the occasion:
“The laying of the cornerstone for the new Episcopal Church has significance not only in terms of the future life and worship of the congregation, but also of the past. Fifty years ago, on June 22, 1903, a small group of Episcopalians in Smithfield ventured forth with faith and bought from the Baptists the old St. Paul’s Church building. Today, a half century later, present members of the church, sharing the faith and vision of their forefathers, are again building.”
The new Church was consecrated, to the Glory of God, on March 7, 1954, the First Sunday in Lent, with Bishop Penick officiating. During the service the 24th Psalm was read alternately by the Bishop and Rev. Hein. The concluding hymn was “The Church’s One Foundation.” The Church’s dream for a new house of worship was finally realized.
With a seating capacity of 200, the new Church is English Gothic in style, and integrates in perfect harmony with the Parish House, to which it is connected by a colonnade of pointed brick arches. In its overall effect the Church is dramatic, both inside and out. A book of architectural history stated that the Church is “an extremely handsome, well proportioned, early English Gothic” style structure that exudes a “serene dignity that is seldom achieved in newer ecclesiastical complexes.”
Enhancements and adornments . . .
Never content to rest on such laurels, in the decades following its consecration the faithful of St. Paul’s have continued to make enhancements and adornments to their Church. Some of these include:
- In 1984, three lovely stained glass windows were installed in the south wall of the Parish House. These were salvaged from the old Baptist church when it was renovated in 1903. They had lain undisturbed in attic storage for 80 years and were discovered by the Rev. Bob Pierce, who had them refurbished.
- In 1987, a bell cote, the gift of parishioner A.L Hobgood, was added to adorn the roof of the Church. The bell, which was cast in France, pealed its glorious ring for the first time on February 2nd of that year. In the same year Mr. Hobgood’s daughter, Elizabeth “Cissie” Hobgood Wellons, completed the landscaping of the courtyard of the Parish House, which included a lovely brick and wrought iron fence.
- In 1998, a new Zimmer pipe organ was dedicated. A cherished dream of the Church for decades, the funds for the organ were raised in the largest and most successful capital campaign in the Church’s history, which was headed by parishioners Beverly Jordan and Trisha Faulconer.
- In 1991, the St. Francis Garden was dedicated, a gift of the Harris family. The small cloister garden is nestled serenely along the colonnade walkway. It is a lovely spot in which to enter, rest, and pray.
- In 2007, upon a motion by the late Beverly Jordan, then the Church’s senior warden, the Vestry voted to rename its parish house “Lawrence Hall,” in memory of its benefactress.
- In 2009, parishioners Leo Daughtry and Allen Wellons gave to the Church a portion of the land behind Lawrence Hall, which was adjacent to a new addition of Riverside Cemetery. This new land gave the Church a beautiful “backyard,” and with the new cemetery, the English churchyard appearance of St. Paul’s was greatly enhanced.
Our Hispanic brothers and sisters in Christ . . .
In 1997, in response to the growing Hispanic community in Smithfield and Johnston County, St. Paul’s began a missionary outreach ministry under the leadership of the rector, the Rev. Kenneth Bradshaw, and the Rev. Tony Rojas of the Episcopal Diocese of East Carolina. In 2004, the San Jose Episcopal Mission was admitted to union with the Diocesan convention. The Vestry and the Diocese granted the new mission rights and privileges to use the Church’s facilities.
The Church enters its second century of service to Christ . . .
In 2001, with the dawning of its second century of service to the Greater Glory of God, St. Paul’s adopted its mission statement:
“To know Christ, and to make Christ known.”
In all of its actions and decisions, the Church endeavors to remain steadfast to this sacred mission.
On Sunday, May 29, 2011, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the consecration of the Church, Father James S. Melnyk led the congregation in the following prayer:
“Almighty God, to whose glory we celebrate the dedication of this house of prayer: We give you thanks for the fellowship of those who have worshipped in this place, and we pray that all who seek you here may find you, and be filled with your joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”
For further reading . . .
If you would like to know more about St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and how it came to be, see our Centennial History, which was written by parishioner David O. Stephens in 2011. The Church’s Rector or Office Manager will be pleased to give you a copy.