NEWBURYPORT — Established in 1711, St. Paul's Episcopal Church saw the American colonies evolve into a country and produced the first Massachusetts Bishop from its pulpit. Now as 2011 is around the corner, St. Paul's is gearing up to celebrate its 300th birthday.
Over the next year, the landmark High Street church will be hosting a series of events in recognition of its third century in Newburyport. The events, which are open to the public, will be focused around three services, which look both to the past and the future, and will include concerts and special gatherings.
"We thought it would be fun to take in the history of the parish in a leisurely way," St. Paul's Rector Martha Hubbard said. "So, we have a number of events to celebrate the church and draw interest into the history by the community."
The celebration will kick off tomorrow with a rededication of the church. A procession will walk through the church labyrinth and through the graveyard in quiet reflection and end at the same cornerstone that was dedicated in 1922 when the current structure was first opened, Hubbard said.
"We want to do this to honor the life of the ministry that has gone on since then," Hubbard said.
Nearly four years of planning went into the yearlong celebration, said Priscilla B. Bellairs, a parishioner since 1985 and member of St. Paul's 300th anniversary committee.
The other two services will take place on the first Sunday of May and the first Sunday in June with each service honoring a different period of the church's history. The final service will be held by the Celtic Cross on Storey Avenue that marks the site of the Queen Ann's Chapel, St. Paul's first home.
Over the centuries, St. Paul's has established itself as a fixture in the community and donates space and services to programs like Harborside Adult Day Care, Strings in Motion, Among Friends, Sangha Meditation Group and many others.
"A lot of community groups use the building on a regular basis," Hubbard said. "It is wonderful. We have a large building in good repair, and we're happy that it is not sitting empty during the week."
The church has played host to groups that grew from fledgling community services to established programs in the region. Many years ago, the church housed a women's crisis center that was the genesis of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, Bellairs said. The church also played a role in starting the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival.
St. Paul's boasts the record as the oldest continuing Episcopal parish in Massachusetts. This record is all the more impressive considering the setbacks it has faced through the centuries.
During the Revolutionary War, the Church of England struggled as it coped with a deeply divided parish of both British loyalists and American patriots. The Rev. Edward Bass, the sitting rector during this time, faced an inner conflict when he was asked to read the Declaration of Independence from the pulpit.
He prayed for days about what he should do, Hubbard said. Torn between his allegiance to the king and loyalty to the colony, Bass finally decided to have a senior church member, Tristram Dalton, read the declaration to the parish. Bass went on to become the first Bishop to hail from Massachusetts and was one of the few who was able to keep his parish together through the war.
Over a century later, the church was burned to the ground during a fire in 1920.
"Everyone pulled together and realized that the church was not the building, but the people in building made up the church," Hubbard said.
This sentiment has carried on to this day and has been memorialized in a hymn written for St. Paul's titled "Not the Building, But the People."
The church's most recent hardship came with a winter storm last year. Powerful winds ripped the slate tiling off the roof, causing extensive water damage to the roof and basement. Through the community's support, St. Paul's was able to keep its doors open and services running.
The Central Congregational Church offered to host the St. Paul's-based meal program Among Friends, which serves three hot meals a week to members of the community in need. The Link House on Washington St. lent a hand relocating furniture out of the water damaged area and so many other community members helped keep things moving.
"It was a really nice feeling to know that our neighbors were helping us," Hubbard said.
A complete list of 300th anniversary events including dates and times can be found on St. Paul's website www.stpauls-nbpt.org.
"Looking to where we stand now, and back on the challenges and glories of the past, we have to ask ourselves what our challenges are now and what we will face in the future," Hubbard said.