Years of sorrow, joy, and growth
This is the third of an occasional series about St. James Episcopal Church of New London which will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2025.
When I read the Rev. Robert Hallam’s “Annals of St. James Church, New London,” I was taken aback by what seemed to be a rather dismissive description of the second Episcopal church building’s architecture. (The first church had been torched during the Revolution.) Sometime after the congregation outgrew this second church, it became a private home and livery business owned by Griswold Avery, my great-grandfather. My grandmother was born there, and my mom had happy memories of her early childhood there. Decades before I was born, it also fell victim to arson; still, it naturally holds a special place in my affections.
I forgive Hallam, though. He was writing in anticipation of St. James 150th anniversary, and he was justifiably proud of the beautiful third church that was completed in 1850, an achievement made possible in part by the prosperity of New London’s whaling era.
Immediately following the Revolution, however, people were in desperate financial straits. After Arnold had leveled almost everything, raising funds for new construction was a daunting task. It took time, faith, and hard work, but by 1787, a Greek Revival-style edifice stood near where the Salvation Army headquarters are today. The simple but classic design reflected America’s pride in her new democracy.
In Hallam’s chronicle of church history between 1787 and 1850, two events particularly stand out for me. One occurred in 1842 when Hallam conducted a funeral for longtime parishioner and next-door neighbor Ichabod Pease, an African American. The eulogy, “The Dignity of Goodness,” was an emotional celebration of life and an acknowledgment of the deep loss felt by the congregation for this model of courage and strength. Today Pease’s eulogy is held by the Library of Congress.
Pease had been born into slavery, serving two families with close ties to the church. Samuel Seabury, the first American Episcopal bishop, was a mentor during Pease’s early life, although Seabury himself owned slaves. Pease undertook a daring escape that went wrong, hid for some time in New London, was captured, re-enslaved, and finally secured his freedom in 1794.
Pease led an industrious life, and old age didn’t slow him down. Remarkably, when he was 81 years old, he opened his home as a school for black children because New London district schools’ white parent committees objected to the presence of black children in public schools, even though state law mandated the education of all children.
At his death, men vied for the honor of carrying his casket.
Mary Lycan, St. James historian, and Tom Schuch, a retired social services executive and local historian, spoke about Pease’s life at an event sponsored by New London Landmarks (NLL) and hosted at the church. NLL has restored the grave stones of Pease and his wife, and together with the church has rescued this worthy man’s memory from oblivion.
Another event noted by Hallam concerned a maritime tragedy, and the church’s role in dealing with the ensuing grief. On Thanksgiving 1846, the S.S. Atlantic, a luxury steamship, commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt and owned by the Norwich & Worcester Railroad, was wrecked. She’d left Allyn’s Point in Ledyard the day before, destination New York. A violent storm was in progress, and when the vessel stopped in New London, the captain was warned to wait for calmer weather. Undeterred, he set forth into Long Island Sound.
They hadn’t gone far when the ship’s boiler exploded, disabling the engine. The anchors wouldn’t hold, and the wind and waves propelled the helpless ship toward Fishers Island. Back on shore, people watched in horror as the Atlantic was driven relentlessly to her doom. Forty-two lives were lost.
One set of fatalities was especially poignant. The Waltons, a family of seven, had all been killed except for their 13-year-old son. They were recent immigrants without family or resources. Local authorities and church leaders went into action. A standing-room-only funeral was held in the Universalist Church with pastors from the other New London denominations participating. John Deshon, acting pastor at St. James, read the Episcopal Service by the graves in Cedar Grove Cemetery.
On a much happier note, in 1824 the Marquis de Lafayette had attended a service at St. James while on his farewell tour of America. The appearance of this beloved hero must have been wildly exciting for the congregation. For his part, Lafayette probably felt a deep sense of satisfaction. In 1781, just a month after Arnold torched the original church, Lafayette had exhorted his troops at Yorktown, “Remember New London!” Now 40-some years later, he could see the evidence of recovery everywhere in this resilient city, including the church where he was worshiping.
By mid-century, with the city thriving and church membership increasing, St. James faced a highly desirable problem: they’d exceeded the sanctuary’s capacity. A committee was formed to plan for a new church. Designed by a preeminent American architect, it would be magnificent.
With thanks to St. James Episcopal Church, New London Landmarks, and the Old Mystic History Center for their input.
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