Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
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Church Construction Timeline

Author:  Steve Avent

The parish of St. Peter's was established by the general court of Virginia on April 29, 1679. There were at that time two churches in the parish: one was the "upper church", located about three miles west of the present village of Old Church, near a town on Broaddus Flats on the Pamunkey River named Newcastle, now vanished. The second was called the "lower church" and was also called the "broken back'd" church, referring apparently to some structural weakness in the building. This church was the forerunner of present day St. Peter's, and was most likely located some three 1/2 miles west of the present church, near where routes 608 and 606 meet.

 What was the problem with the “broken-back’d church?” An architectural historian named Dell Upton, in his book “Holy Things and Profane”, a study of Colonial VA churches, wrote:  “Almost all 17th century VA churches were wooden buildings. 17th century parish churches were for the most part as fragile as the houses of their parishioners, since, like the houses, they were built of a particularly flimsy kind of frame construction. The timbers of these buildings came into direct contact with the ground or were, at best, supported on wooden blocks that served as a foundation. Earthfast post construction, in which the principal wooden uprights were set into the ground, was used at several parish churches in 17th century VA, including the lower churches of St. Peter’s and Petsworth parishes, which were reposted in 1688 and 1695 respectively”.

So the old “broken-back’d church” was basically a pole building, and in the days before pressure-treated wood these buildings would not have lasted long in Tidewater Virginia. To deal with this problem, at a vestry meeting held at the house of Mr. James Moss the 13th of August, 1700, the vestry issued the following order:
“Whereas the Lower Church of this parish is very much out of Repair and Standeth very inconvenient for most of the inhabittants of the said parish, it is Therefore ordered that as soon as conveniently may be a new Church of Brick Sixty feet long and twenty fower feet wide in the Cleer and fourteen feet pitch with a Gallery Sixteen feet Long be built and Erected upon the maine Roade by the School House near Thomas Jackson’s.”

The main road was the old stage road, which still runs just outside the church gates, and the schoolhouse stood on the northwest corner of that road and St. Peter’s Lane, just across from parishioners Bill and Kathy Lindsey’s house. “Thomas Jackson’s” place was Marl Hill, which of course still stands near St. Peter’s and is now the home of the Grahams, also parishioners of St. Peter's. The vestry also requested a gentleman named Will Hughes to “draw a Draft of the said Church and to bee at the next vestry.” Lastly, they ordered Mr. Gideon Macon and Mr. Thomas Smith to “treate with and buy an acre of Land of Thomas Jackson whereon to build the said Church and for a Church yard.”

At a vestry meeting held the 14th of Feb., 1701, the vestry appointed “Jo’n Lewis and Gideon Macon, Gentleman Supervisors and Directors of the said work”. William Hughes, Carpenter, presented his plan for the church and agreed to perform all the “Carpenters, Joyners and hewers work” for the proposed church for the price of 25,000 pounds of “Sweet sented Tobacco” with a 1000 pound bonus paid upon completion. By the way, just a couple of weeks ago I gave a tour of St. Peter’s to a gentleman from Mechanicsville whose last name was Hughes, and he said he was a direct descendant of Will Hughes’ brother, Reece Hughes. Thomas Jackson agreed to “make 100,000 good and well burnt brick fit for building, each and Every brick to be moulded in a Shod mould of 9 inches 3/4 in length and 4 3/4 in width and 4 inches 1/2 thick in the Cleer” for the price of 20,000 lbs of “sweet-sented tobacco”. The remains of a colonial-era kiln have been found just west of the church, and my guess is that the bricks were made on site and probably in the low ground between the church building and the parking lot, but that’s just a guess. A Vincent Vaughn agreed to do all the sawyers work for one pound of Tobacco. Apparently sawyers work didn’t pay very well in those days.

At vestry meetings held in June and October of 1701, the vestry authorized payment for the work then underway on the church and received a donation of one acre of land from Thomas Jackson upon which the church was to be built. They also ordered that 3 laborers be hired to help the bricklayers and that they be on the job by March of 1702. They further contracted with Mr. Henry Wyatt “to get 20000 Good Sound Sipres Shingles for Covering for the brick Church. Each and every Shingle to be 18 inches in Length, and none to be more than 5 inches in breadth, and not to be Less than 1/2 an inch or more than 3/4 of an inch thick” from the Chickahominy Swamp. He was to be paid 2000 lbs of tobacco. Mr. Wyatt also agreed “to send to England...for Ironwork, Glass for Sash windows, and paint for the aforesaid Church “.

At a vestry meeting held between October 1701 and April of 1702, the vestry “Ordered that the Church wardens forthwith Send to Thomas Becket and Zackery Ellis or any other Bricklayers to Come and view the Bricks made by Thomas Jackson for the building of a brick Church in this parish - whither they are good and well burnt, fitt for building and that the viewers make Report thereof, and that the Church wardens pay them for their Trouble. “ This tells us that Thomas Jackson must have completed the 100,000 bricks by spring of 1702, but that actual construction of the church had not yet begun, since they obviously would have had the bricks inspected prior to the erection of the building.

At a vestry meeting held the 6th of April, 1702 the vestry authorized payment for nails for the construction of the church, so framing and actual construction of the church was obviously about to begin, about 2 years after the initial vestry order to build the church.

At a vestry meeting held the 27th of Feb., 1703: “James Knott, plasterer, doeth and hath this day agreed with this vestry to drive and naile on the Lathes and doe all the Lathing plastering and painting work that is to be done in, on or about a Brick Church now built in this parish... (and) this vestry doe promise to pay the Said James Knott foure thousand five hundred pounds of Tobacco “ So by Feb. 1703 the walls and roof of the church must have been up, and they were ready to be have the plaster and paint applied to the interior. Finally, at a vestry meeting held at the Brick Church the 13th of July, 1703 the vestry “ordered that the pulpit in the said Brick Church be Set upon the north Side thereof”, which tells us that at that time the interior of the church was completed enough to hold vestry meetings there, but still not complete enough for services, since the pulpit had not yet been placed in the church. The vestry furthermore contracted with Cornelius Hall, Bricklayer, who ”agreed with this vestry to brick the Ile of the Brick Church from dore to dore “, which would likely have been one of the final tasks to be completed in the construction of the church. At the next vestry meeting, held in Oct., 1703 there were no more payments made related to construction of the church, so the first services must have been held in the new brick church between July and Oct. of 1703. The final cost of construction was 146,000 pounds of tobacco.

To summarize the time line of construction:

8/15/1700: initial vestry order for building. Will Hughes requested to draw up plan and report back.
2/14/1701: overseers of the project appointed. Hughes presents plan and it is accepted. 100,000 bricks ordered.
10/1701: bricklayers hired. 20,000 cypress shingles ordered. Ironwork and paint ordered.
Winter/spring 1702: bricks completed and inspected.
April 1702: actual construction begins
Fall 1702: roof raised and shingles applied to roof
2/1703: interior plastering and painting begun
7/1703: final interior work done (pulpit and aisle flooring). Services held soon afterward.