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Church Grounds


Author:  Steve Avent

Much has been written about the structure and interior of St. Peter’s, but not nearly as much about the grounds and situation of the church, which are also quite interesting in their own right. The first church of St. Peter’s Parish was built around 1685, and was probably located , according to Dr. Harris’s history of New Kent County, in the vicinity of the intersection of routes 608 and 606, near Tunstall, around three miles west of present-day St. Peter’s. This church was, of course, called the "broken back’d" church, due apparently, to some structural weakness in the building. Because of this weakness and a desire for greater access to the Pamunkey River ferries in the White House/Poplar Grove area (the parish encompassed areas on both sides of the river) the vestry approved the construction of a new brick church at a meeting held August 13, 1700. An acre of land was purchased from Thomas Jackson, of nearby Marl Hill (still standing, and the home of the Grahams, who are parishioners of St. Peter’s) and a Mr. William Hughes was given the task of constructing the new church, at a price of 146,000 pounds of tobacco. (Five additional acres were purchased from Mr. Jackson’s grandson in 1738). There was once an old story that the bricks for the church came from England, but this was not the case. Any resident of New Kent trying to maintain a yard will vouch for the fact that there is no shortage of clay in the county, and, in fact, the remains of a colonial-era kiln were found near the church.

Why, you might ask, was the church built on this spot and not elsewhere? If you stand at the churchyard gate and face the church, you will see a dirt road extending to your right, and the trace of an old road disappearing into the woods on your left. This was the old Stage Road, constructed in the latter part of the 17th century, and was the main road to Hanover Courthouse and points northwest from Williamsburg. It was the Interstate 95 of its day. Washington, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and countless other famous and ordinary folk made their way along that road, heading toward an unknown and dangerous frontier. What better place for a new church? - both for the convenience of local residents and travelers.

It was built on the eastern edge of a prominent knoll, even though the western edge (where the parish house is now located) was somewhat higher in elevation. Why was this? There were rules governing the construction and orientation of churches at that time, and one rule was that the altar must be placed in the eastern end of the church, thus making the worshipers face the east, the expected location of Christ’s resurrection. People entering the church therefore enter through the west, and sufficient room is needed around the western entrance for groups of people, and carriages, and so on. Just west of the parish house the ground slopes off sharply, so there would not have been enough room at the western entrance if the building were located there so, I believe, they chose the eastern edge instead.

As you walk from the parish house to the church, you will note a ditch running perpendicular to the walkway to your left and right. I’ve seen drawings of the churchyard from the mid-19th century that show this to have been a much more prominent landmark then than now, after several centuries of erosion. I’ve heard many theories as to its origin, and here’s mine: after the Revolution, St. Peter’s, like most churches beholden to the Church of England, was virtually abandoned, until the Presbyterians took it over around 1820 or so. Historian Martha McCartney, in her book James City County, Keystone of the Commonwealth, wrote: "Whenever a church was abandoned or replaced, the old building and its yard were marked by a ditch, perhaps as a means of identifying what had been a burial ground." So, I believe this ditch was created when the church was abandoned after the Revolution, and is an ever-present reminder of the struggles St. Peter’s has undergone on its way to its present prosperity. Incidentally, 3 or 4 unmarked graves are clearly visible on the eastern edge of the ditch, north of the walkway and about 15 feet from it.

Did you know that St. Peter’s once had a northern wing? It was added around 1770 and was used as a schoolroom by the Presbyterians, early in the 19th century. It was 24’ X 24’, and while it existed the church had a "T" shape. It was torn down around 1850, and its foundations are still clearly visible on the north side of the church in the form of a raised and level area.