Friday, April 13, 2012

St. John’s Church

St. John’s Episcopal Church is located at 105 Chapel Street, atop Church Hill on the southeast corner of Chapel and Bow Streets.

There has been a church on this hill since 1732, when British Anglicans built Queen's Chapel here.

Named in honor of Caroline, the wife of King George II, Queen's Chapel thrived until the Revolutionary War, when the Anglican Church of Britain became unpopular in this country. Starting in 1773, there were no regular services held until 1786.

On November 1, 1789, President George Washington attended services at Queen's Chapel, accompanied by the President of New Hampshire, John Sullivan; John Langdon; and Washington’s private secretary, Tobias Lear. The church still owns an antique chair, contributed by Queen Caroline, that the dignitaries used during the services.

In 1791, the Parish changed the name from the Royal-sounding Queen's Chapel to St. John’s Church.

Early on the morning of December 24, 1806, a faulty hearth in a Bow Street store started a fire. The blaze raced eastwards and  consumed almost every building from the corner of Ceres Street to the base of Church Hill. Sparks landed on the roof of St. John's and set the wooden church on fire. Despite desperate attempts to limit the damage, the church burned to the ground.

The cornerstone for a new chapel was laid on June 24, 1807, with the Grand Master of the New Hampshire Masons, Captain Thomas Thompson, delivering the address. The brick St. John’s Church that still stands today opened on May 29, 1808.

President James Monroe attended services on July 13, 1817, and the funeral of Admiral David G. Farragut was held here on August 17, 1870. Today, St. John's Church serves the oldest Episcopal Parish in New Hampshire, and the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The church has barely changed in the 110 years that have passed since this Library of Congress photograph was taken in 1902. A new Parish House on the right was built in 1953, and now ugly power lines spoil the view. 

The bell that still rings over Portsmouth was presented to the Parish on March 30, 1745 by New Hampshire military officers. It was captured from the French after the Siege of Louisburg (Nova Scotia). Originally cast in France, the bell was badly damaged in the 1806 inferno and recast in Boston by Paul Revere. It was recast again in 1896.
The graveyard on the northern side of the church contains almost one hundred marked graves and ten underground vaults. The oldest gravestone dates from 1745.

Buried here are some of the most prominent pre-Revolution Portsmouth families.
Surnames include Atkinson, Jaffrey, Sherburne, Sheafe, Manning, and Gardner. Royal Governors John Wentworth and Benning Wentworth and their families are entombed here.

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