St. Mary's Protestant Episcopal Church
Locust Street, between 39th and 40th Streets | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Founded 1800; Cornerstone laid 1824

[From West Philadelphia Illustrated: Early History of West Philadelphia and its Environs, its People and its Historical Points, by M. Laffitte Vieira, copyright, Charles H. Clarke. Philadelphia: Avil Printing Co., 1903. pp. 42-45.]

Many of those who pass St. Mary's Church, Locust, between Thirty-ninth and Fortieth streets, are struck by the peculiarity of the steeple and its architectural design. Inspection reveals the fact that the steeple is situated very oddly and the church built to conform to it. This construction of the tower and steeple was made in accordance with the original deed of grant of the property from William Hamilton the then owner of all the ground in the locality. The deed was made in the early part of the nineteenth century and the special clause referring to the church reads as follows: "and ye steeple must be so placed that it can be seen from ye manor house." The manor house here referred to was that which is now used as the residence of the superintendent of the Woodlands Cemetery. It was then the residence of the William Hamilton who owned the property known as Hamilton Village. The steeple had to be peculiarly constructed to carry out this idea and the church built to conform to it. The steeple now stands considerably in the rear of the church. About twenty-five years ago when alterations were being effected it was contemplated to fix this matter, but the deed stood in the way. St. Mary's was founded in the year 1800.

The following extracts from "A Sketch of the History of St. Mary's Church," by the Rev. Thomas C. Yarnall, D.D., are full of interest:

The earliest services of the Protestant Episcopal Church in what was formerly known as Hamilton Village, now part of the Twenty-seventh Ward, of the city of Philadelphia, were held in a small two-story building which stood on the south side of Chestnut street, about midway between Thirty-ninth and Fortieth streets. It was the school house of the village, and was called the Academy. For several years it seems to have been the only building where public worship was held for the accommodation of the immediate neighborhood, and the privilege of its occupancy on Sunday for this purpose was not restricted to any one denomination.

The initiatory movement towards erecting an Episcopal church in Hamilton Village was probably due to Mr. Chandler Price, who during the summer and fall months occupied what was then his country residence, the house which until recent years stood at the northwest corner of Chestnut and Thirty-eighth streets, and which was built in 1800.

In the actual report of the Society for the Advancement of Christianity in Pennsylvania, made in the year 1817, occur the following words: "It having been suggested by some members of the Board that a lot had been conveyed by the late William Hamilton, Esq., during his lifetime, in Hamiltonville, for the use of an Episcopal church to be built thereon, and it not being within the knowledge of any of the Trustees where the said deed was to be found, a committee was appointed to make such inquiries as might lead to a discovery. They have since reported that the deed is found. It appears to be a grant of four lots, fifty feet each in front, by one hundred and twenty-five feet deep. The term for building the church does not expire until the year 1828."

The annual report of the same Society, January 6, 1820, says: "The Trustees having ascertained that there were a considerable number of the members of our Church residing in the immediate vicinity of Philadelphia, who were anxious for the enjoyment of public worship thought that, by some attention on their part, congregations might be established, and churches erected in the suburbs of the city, and in one or more of those pleasant villages which are situated on the banks of the Schuylkill."

An appropriation was therefore made for a domestic mission. The Rev. William Richmond was placed in charge of the mission, and for a period of seven months officiated in the District of Southwark, at the Falls of Schuylkill and at Hamiltonville.

At the last-named mission, "Divine service was held on every other Sunday morning from the beginning of May to the seventh of November, and on every Sunday morning from November 7 to December 1, in a school house, where a respectable and pretty numerous congregation usually assembled. And there were a number of Episcopal families, some of whom came from Mantua and surrounding country."

In 1821 Mr. Richmond was succeeded by the Rev. Mr. Roche, who officiated as the settled minister of the two places, Southwark and Hamiltonville. St. Mark's Church, Mantua, was consecrated May, 1821. The corner-stone of St. Mary's was not laid until 1824.

In a communication to one of the daily newspapers of the city, Poulsen's American Advertiser, of Monday morning, July 12, 1824, the following account is given of the laying of the corner-stone of the original building, which stood on the site now occupied by the present one:

"A very respectable meeting of citizens and villagers assembled on Tuesday afternoon last to witness the solemn and interesting ceremony of laying the corner-stone of the Protestant Episcopal Church of St. Mary's in the village of Hamilton. The Right Rev. Bishop White presided and performed the ceremony. He was assisted by the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie, Rev. Mr. Kemper, and the Rev. Mr. Delancy." Bishop White was then in the seventy-eighth year of his age.

A Collecting Committee was appointed, which included Mr. Christian Wiltberger, Mr. Stephen North and Joseph Williams, Esq. Mr. Wiltberger was for many years a vestryman at St. Mary's, and one of its first wardens, to whose watchful care the parish owed much.

The original Building Committee consisted of Mr. Chandler Price, Mr. Christian Wiltberger and Mr. Robert A. Caldcleugh, Christian Wiltberger, Florimond Dusar, Henry Becket, James McAlpin.

St. Mary's Church was consecrated by Bishop White, on Saturday the sixteenth day of June, 1827, and divine service was held in it "on each alternate Sunday until late in the fall." The Rev. George Weller's missionary duty was divided between this church and that which was then called St. Mark's Church, Mantua (now St. Andrew's). The congregations of both churches were composed for the most part of summer residents in this then rural and very sparsely settled portion of Philadelphia County, and no provision being made in either building against the inclemency of winter, they were closed after cold weather had set in.

At this time the Schuylkill River was the western boundary of the city, and the built portion of the city was very little west of Broad street, and in many places did not extend that far. In May, 1832, the Rev. Raymond H. Henderson was appointed missionary. Under his care there were held during the summer and fall months regular afternoon services in the church at Hamiltonville. The dilapidated state of the windows of the building precluded services in the winter. The church at Mantua, oppressed by a heavy debt and deprived through removal of its principal supporters from the village was sold. The church at Hamiltonville, St. Mary's, from its contiguity served for the accommodation of the Episcopalian congregations of the two villages. Mr. Henderson, in 1832 and 1833, acted as missionary at Hamiltonville, and assistant minister of the Swedish church (Kingsessing). He was advanced to priest's orders in St. Mary's Church, by Bishop H. W. Onderdonk, on Sunday, August 16, 1829, and at the same time Mr. John Swan, of Maryland, was made deacon. The only other ordinations held in the old church occurred May 19, 1844, when the Rev. George G. Field, the Rev. Henry T. Hiester, and the Rev. Thomas C. Yarnall,--the last named the rector of the church over fifty years--were admitted to the priesthood. In 1824 the lot on which the edifice was built was enclosed by a substantial fence. In 1835 a Sunday School was formed, auxiliary to the Diocesan Sunday School Union, and the property of St. Mary's transferred to the vestry by the trustees of Hamilton, and the debt cleared.

At the advanced age of eighty, and on the morning of Whitsunday, May 16, 1875, the Rev. Dr. Piggott preached in the new church building which occupied the site of that in which forty years before he had officiated.

May 16, 1837, the Rev. Thomas J. Brientnall was elected rector of the church, and was the first who served in that capacity. He was succeeded in September 1838, by the Rev. Richard Drayson Hall, and after the resignation of Mr. Hall, in 1843, the Rev. W. H. Woodward was placed in charge of the parish. In April, 1844, the Rev. Thomas C. Yarnall, D. D., became the rector.

The row of horse-sheds which stood on the western side of the church lot, for the accommodation of those who drove in from the further country to attend the service, was in use for many years, and only disappeared when the ground was broken for the new church building.

There are few persons still living who remember the quaint Gothic framework which adorned the chancel of the old church. This together with the original framework of the pews, came from the furniture of the Swedenborgian Church building which was at the southeast corner of Twelfth and George streets (now Sansom). When that building was purchased by the Academy of Natural Sciences for the preservation of its valuable collections, the fixtures were found unsuitable and were sold to St. Mary's.

The chancel framework remained in the church until the summer of 1846, when the first enlargement of the church took place.

In 1830 the present rectory was built, a portion of which was designed for, and used by, the Sunday School. In 1855 several families withdrew from St. Mary's, and shortly after, these with others formed the Church of the Saviour. The effect of this was to postpone measures for the rebuilding of St. Mary's until 1871, when generous subscriptions were secured, which resulted in the erection, in 1873, of the present church, the corner-stone of which was laid by Bishop Stevens, July 1, 1872. The first service in the new church was held on Christmas Day, 1873. The present Sunday School building was erected in 1874, and enlarged by an additional story in 1883.

With the rapid growth of the city, the once rural church, formerly in the midst of a cedar clearing, has outlived its former quiet country and unpretending appearance.

Like "St. Martin-in-the-Fields," now in the heart of London, "St. Mary's, Hamilton Village," partakes of the surroundings of city life, and upon it rests the sacred influence of a green old age and the beautiful influence of the history of a faithful work.


back to Historic West Philadelphia Churches

back to University City Historical Society Homepage