Friday, August 20, 2010

St. James Church

The earliest settlers in Mill Creek Hundred were a mix of Swedes who had moved inland from the settlements at Fort Christina (Wilmington) and, briefly, Fort Trinity (New Castle), and English who arrived after they took control of the area in 1664. Whether Swedish or English, the one thing all these early inhabitants had in common was their religious zeal. It seems hard to comprehend in today's rapid-transit world, but if these early Swedish Lutheran or Anglican residents wanted to worship, they had to travel either to Old Swedes Church in Wilmington, or Immanuel Church in New Castle. Not surprisingly, they started exploring options a bit closer to home.

The church that stands today at the corner of Old Capitol Trail and St. James Church Road was built in 1822, but the history of the site goes back over a century further. In a will dated 1701, Arient Jansen Vanderburg, the first European owner of the land, gave a portion of his estate to Holy Trinity (Old Swedes) Church. Sometime in the next few years, a small log chapel was built that was used both by missionaries from Old Swedes as well as Immanuel Church. In 1714, the land was conveyed to James Robinson, who set aside 10 acres (presumably where the log church was) for church use. The log chapel, now considered inadequate, was replaced in 1716 by a 32 x 22 foot wood frame church. This church, which would serve for over a century, was considered (at least by the English) to be a "chapel-of-ease" for Immanuel Church -- sort of like a "branch office" for those unable to make the trek to New Castle.

The wooden St. James Church, which added a cemetery in the 1720's, continued to be used jointly by the Anglican (later Episcopal) and Swedish Lutheran ministers until the gradual disappearance of the Swedish church in the later 18th century. Although there appears to be no direct record of a fire, it's believed that the wood church burned down in 1820 and was replaced two years later by the current stone structure. This new church, as originally built, was 35 x 39 feet, with stair towers on the east and west sides and a rounded apse containing the altar on the north. The stairs were needed because the church was a two-story structure, having balcony seating for area slaves. Below them were (and are) beautiful Colonial-style wooden box pews. The chancel is adorned with an oak altar table installed in 1890, just one of many improvements made to the church over the years.

A melodeon (a small, foot-bellow-operated pipe organ) was purchased in 1857, and additional land for the cemetery was acquired two years later. Soon after, a small stone wall was built around the property and horse sheds (since removed) were erected. In 1894, in the midst of major renovations, the most noticeable addition was put in place when the east tower was enlarged and the belfry and bell were installed. Also around this time, the original chancel window was replaced by a new stained-glass window (donated by Richard Pilling, part owner of woolen factories in Newark, Stanton, and Kiamensi), and the original was installed in the belfry tower. Also, as mentioned in the Harmony School post, there was for over a hundred years a school on the property. For those who like legislative language, you can read the act incorporating the school. The church's website tells the story this way:
The school building erection was begun in 1807 and in 1809 three acres of land was deeded to the school trustees who operated a community educational program until the state took over in 1830. The building was finally torn down in 1915 and the stones used to build a sexton's house. This house forms a part of the present parish house. The first addition to the sexton's house was added in 1934, built by the Rev. Millward W. Riker, then rector of the church. Another addition was added in 1958.
The school was begun as a secular subscription school (open to all, but for a price), but later became a free public school. By at least 1868, it was not listed as the school in its district, so I'm not sure what became of it or when it stopped being used as a school. The church was listed on the National Register in 1973, and its form can be found here, along with a few pictures. To this day, St. James Church continues to be a vibrant member of the community, now over 300 years into its existence. Tucked away not far from busy Kirkwood Highway, its quiet dignity is a reminder of a much simpler time in Mill Creek Hundred.


  1. Was married here and it was a beautiful, quaint church...

  2. I played the organ during services a couple of times as a teenager. My brother was married there in a beautiful December wedding in 1980, the day after John Lennon died.