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St. Thomas' s Parish History

The pre-Revolutionary predecessor of the American Episcopal Church was the Anglican Church, known generally as the Church of England.  Virginia law required its colonists to attend and support that church, which made it unpopular with many of them. It was in this context in 1730 that St. Thomas’s Parish was created. It was originally named St. Mark’s but was renamed St. Thomas when the parish was divided in 1740.  (The new parish that resulted from the 1740 divide was given the old name of St. Mark’s.  It was in what is now Culpeper County.)

When the American Revolution began, the parish had two “chapels of ease,” built to serve members in outlying areas, and, nearer to town, a brick “mother church,” located on Meadowfarm, the property of Col. James Taylor II.  Two of Col. Taylor's great-grandsons served as  United States presidents:  James Madison, Jr., and Zachary Taylor.  Members of both families served as church officials.

Shortly after the Revolution, both chapels of ease were abandoned, and the mother church was torn down as disaffected locals had their way with the former “state church.”  The only items saved were a few bricks (now set in the present church’s front porch floor), and the London-made “Madison Silver” communion ware.  Without a church home, the few remaining parishioners worshiped at the county court house. 

In the possession of the Library of Virginia is a post-Revolutionary document in which the parishioners of St. Thomas petitioned the House of Delegates for the right to sell glebes, or church lands.   The 1787 request reads in part: "We pray that our glebe may be sold and the money ... put to the support of the poor or paying county charges and that the churches be opened for all to preach and worship in."  This and other early religious petitions of Orange County can be seen here.

The congregation of St. Thomas began to grow in the 1800s, and in 1833 the present church lot was purchased.  A church building was erected the following year.  That building ~ the core of the present church ~ is thought to have been built by one or more of the builders trained by Thomas Jefferson, likely William Phillips, his master mason.  Even so, the original building was a simple, rectangular brick structure.  Another Jefferson-trained builder produced the Jeffersonian, Neoclassical additions in 1853. 



     Engraving of James Madison by Thomas B. Welch (1814-74) from a drawing by James B. Longacre (1794-1869).  Longacre went to Montpelier in July 1833 to paint this portrait for Longacre's and James Herring's National Portrait Gallery.  It is the last from-life portrait of James Madison known to have survived.  Courtesy Prints and Photographs Divison, Library of Congress.

     Engraving of first lady and celebrated hostess Dolley Madison by Charles Goodman (1796-1835) and Robert Piggot (1795-1887) from an oil painting by Bass Otis (1784-1861).  Otis executed the original painting in 1816, probably at Montpelier, when Mrs. Madison was age forty-eight.  Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


                            Rector of St. Thomas, The Rev John Strother Hansbrough 1870 - 1908 

St. Thomas did not escape the perils of the American Civil War.  Its Rector, the Reverend Dr. Richard T. Davis, was granted a leave of absence to ride as chaplain for the 6th Virginia Cavalry, and as early as May 1862, parishioner Fanny Hume noted in her diary that the sanctuary had been used as a hospital.  For years the bloodstained floors remained as a somber reminder while the church struggled, once again, to recover.  The Reverend John Hansbrough supplied the pulpit at St. Thomas during the absence of Mr. Davis.

Following the defeat at Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia came to Orange County and remained here from August 1863 to May 1864.  Attracting them were the 20-mile-long complex of earthworks on the county’s northern border, the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital, and the network of railroads and turnpikes serving the county. 


Above, a map drawn by Confederate Lt. Walter Izard during the Civil War.  St. Thomas's Episcopal Church can be seen with a steeple atop beneath the "ORANGE C H" [court house] legend.  Courtesy Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

During the army’s stay, General Lee, General A.P. Hill, and General Robert Rodes were among the many Confederates of high and low rank who attended St. Thomas.  In November 1863, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was among those who attended a service preached by Reverend/General William Pendleton, Lee’s Chief of Artillery and an Episcopal minister.  When new pews were installed in the 20th century, Lee’s pew was saved and a plaque installed on the new pew that occupies that place in the nave.

Lee is known to have tied his horse, Traveller, to a locust tree on the church grounds when attending St. Thomas’s, and a locust continues to stand at that spot today.

Some fascinating archival material about this period of time at St. Thomas survives.  Click here to read transcripts of vivid Civil War-era letters detailing President Davis, General Lee, General Pendleton, and General Rodes worshipping at St. Thomas's.


The photograph above of Robert E. Lee was taken by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady in an April 1865.  Courtesy the National Archives.


Following the war, the church briefly struggled, then flourished.  The chaos of wartime was replaced with the continuity and comfort of the extended leadership of the Reverend John S. Hansbrough, who served the parish from 1870 until 1908, the longest single tenure in St. Thomas’s history.

The 20th century saw the continuing growth of St. Thomas, both in membership and in the church structure. Many renovations and additions were made in 1912.  The Parish Hall was added in 1928, the Rector’s study/church office in 1975, and the youth/nursery wing in 1999.  An adjacent lot purchased in the 1990s is recognized and remembered as the home site of Andrew Maples, Jr., one of the famed black fighter pilots of World War II known as the Tuskegee Airmen.


Lt. Andrew Maples, Jr., in a WW II newspaper clipping reporting that he had been awarded his pilot’s wings and a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps following his graduation from the flying school at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Lt. Maples was killed in action in 1944.

                                     St. Thomas’s windows were originally the typical Colonial-style rectangles with clear glass.  By 1933, however, the openings had been given Gothic pointings and contained plain glass windows given by a church in New York.  Over the years those windows were replaced with stained-glass artwork.  The left front window (when facing the altar) was built by Louis Comfort Tiffany.  The middle windows on both sides are the work of Louis K. Berrian, at one time an associate of Tiffany’s.

The cemetery associated with St. Thomas is quite small, as most parishioners have been interred in family cemeteries or in the several large public cemeteries in the area.  Among those interred on the church grounds is Murat W. Williams (1914-1994), a Rhodes Scholar and World War II navy veteran who served briefly as the United States ambassador to El Salvador.

In recognition of its rich past, St. Thomas’s was added to both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.  In 2002, the rich and varied history of St. Thomas was again featured when noted artist Mort Künstler released his snow scene “Soldier of Faith, Gen. Robert E. Lee, Orange, Va., February 17, 1864.” The artwork portrays the general and members of his staff leaving St. Thomas’s after a vesper service.


Note: For more vintage postcards of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
and other Episcopal church pages in the Diocese of Virginia,
please visit our Postcard Page.  

Photo courtesy Anne Meade Faulconer

Perhaps a vintage automobile enthusiast will be able to date the photograph above by the vehicles parked in front.   If so, please contact the church office.

Update October 2007: 
A website visitor, Floridian Tom Egan, wrote of the photo above: "On the left is a Ford Model "A" manufactured from 1927 through 1931 (this particular one is a 1927, though they all were similar) and on the right is a 1935 Ford Pickup Truck.  The truck appears to be the older of the two, but that is not the case.  Judging from it's well-worn looks, I would assume the truck is not new.  The photo, even if the truck were new, can be no older than 1935, but I would probably estimate the age at about 1938 to 1940."


Above, artist Mort Künstler's "Soldier of Faith."
For more information about the artist and his work,
click on his homepage here.

St. Thomas, however, is much more than a building with a rich history.  The church has a vital and vigorous present and an exciting future.  Members of the congregation continue to be actively involved in a host of community outreach programs while they simultaneously strive for personal spiritual growth.  We invite you to join us in worship whenever possible.  You may also call to arrange accessibility for self-tours, and with advance notice, docent-led tours can be arranged for groups.