220421ind history

Despite its 181-year history, St. Paul’s Church in Wickford is still referred to as the “new church” in the community but don’t let that fool you. This building has plenty of longstanding ties to Southern Rhode Island history.

The very recent passing of Canon Peter Spencer has really got me reminiscing about him of course, and the church he led, the religious anchor of my childhood and young adult life. Throughout all that time, Peter Spencer was there ministering to his flock, connecting that flock to the greater world through action and outreach, and teaching us all that every individual we encountered was precious and deserving of our attention. He cared deeply about God and humanity and lived his life to serve. I will miss him. Let’s take a look at the central hub of Canon Peter Spencer’s ministry as a way to honor him and to remember the great works of this “Good Shepard”.

One hundred and eighty-one years ago the membership of North Kingstown’s Episcopal congregation sat down and began a discussion that ended ultimately with the construction of what, to this day, is still called the “new church”. Now beyond the fact that only in a place like Wickford can a 175-year-old building still be commonly referred to as new, the Church itself is just one of those landmark structures, not unlike the Hussey Bridge, that defines “Ye Olde Quaint & Historic”.  So it seems to me that we ought to just stop for a spell and examine the circumstances and story of its construction. A story that tells a tale of just how closely involved the residents of Wickford were in the creation of this local landmark.

Although the main portion of this fine church building, designed by Providence architect Thomas Tefft in a style designated as “carpenter’s Romanesque” was constructed in 1847, the church edifice as a whole was constructed in four phases, with the main sanctuary being built in 1847, the adjacent attached chapel added in 1852, and the clock and bell tower and vestibule being added in 1872. In the 20th century (1960s & 1990s) a two-phase addition was constructed at the back of the church building to provide office and choir practice space.

The construction of this new church building, intended to replace the circa 1707 Old Narragansett Church on Church Lane, was motivated by the needs of the expanding congregation and the limitations of the nearly 150 year old Anglican meeting house. A vestry appointed committee consisting of the Reverend John H. Rouse, Deacon Allen Mason Thomas, and Vestrymen Gideon Freeborn, John Jonathan Reynolds, and Benoni P. Bates, who was also a popular local house carpenter, purchased four house lots, two fronting Main Street and two fronting Washington Street as a location to site the church upon. The two Main Street lots included small homes which were demolished to make way for the church construction.

Additionally, Tefft reviewed and approved the design and provided supervision over the construction, with Deacon Thomas acting as a de-facto clerk of the works for the project. The identity of the actual carpenters that did the work is unknown, although local house carpenters Benoni Bates and Daniel Bullock were active in the appropriate timeframe and members of the congregation. The church was completed on schedule and consecrated on St Paul’s Day in January of 1848. At that time it was a simpler structure with a small belfry atop the church building above the Main Street entrance.

By 1851, the congregation desired more space and a committee consisting of John Jonathan Reynolds, James Eldred, and Horatio Reynolds were directed to arrange for “the erection of a neat and suitable building for the use of St. Paul’s as a chapel”. House carpenter and congregant Benoni P. Bates was hired to construct this structure and it was completed and dedicated in April of 1852.

Almost exactly 20 years later, in March of 1872, Rev. Daniel Goodwin issued a challenge to the congregation and to the rest of the village of Wickford.  If the congregation could fund the construction of a suitable steeple and bell tower — and if the non-parishioner residents of the village could raise the funds necessary to purchase an appropriate bell — then he and his father-in-law James Eldred, a jewelry factory owner, would purchase a grand four-faced clockworks and install it in the steeple. This would be a boon to all in the village during a timeframe when a clock or watch was a luxury and subsequently both the congregation and the village residents rose to the challenge and raised the necessary funds.  Local carpenter and congregation member Horace Hammond was hired to do the work which also included a suitable vestibule to appropriately tie the steeple structure, both functionally and visually, to the main church building.  Hammond felt so connected to the steeple that he continued to maintain and repair it for St. Paul’s as long as he was physically able to.  

For more information on New St Paul’s Church check out the fine book “St. Paul’s Parish in the Narragansett Country” written and edited by members of the congregation for its 300th anniversary.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

(1) comment

Missmaryspencer

Our family read this lovely and interesting passage last evening as we gathered to ready ourselves for my father’s funeral, held today at St. Paul’s. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts about my father, and the historical information about St. Paul’s.

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