History of Christ Church at Frederica
Christ Church is set in tall, mossy grass under towering oak trees. The church grounds include a cemetery. Christ Church, one of the oldest churches in Georgia, was founded on St. Simons Island nearly 70 years after the island was first settled by English colonists. Worship has been continuous since 1736 in Christ Church Parish, established by English colonists at Frederica under General James Oglethorpe.
In February 1736, James Oglethorpe and the first English settlers arrived on St. Simons Island. Shortly thereafter, in March 1736, Reverend Charles Wesley, who also served as Secretary for Indian Affairs and Chaplain to General James Oglethorpe, entered his ministry at Frederica. From 1736-1766, the first religious services on the island were conducted by John Wesley, George Whitfield, and other clergy members of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. When the Trustees surrendered their charter to the king in 1752, Georgia became a royal colony. It was after the Revolutionary War, in 1808, that Christ Church was founded. Though inspired by such men as John and Charles Wesley, the small St. Simons Island population was prevented by the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, among other factors, from erecting a church building until 1820.
Following a petition for a charter by descendants of early settlers, Christ Church was established by an act of the state legislature in 1808. It is the second oldest Episcopal Church in the diocese of Georgia. Before the actual church was built, people met at their homes. The first church building was constructed in 1820 on the same site where the present church is now located. In 1823, Christ Church of Savannah and Saint Paul Church of Augusta merged together. The first small church building lasted until Union Troops damaged it so badly that members of the church had to have service at their homes once again. The church was rebuilt in 1884.
The first rector was The Reverend Edmund Matthews, who served before, during and after construction of the original building. The only island church, it was attended by people from the 14 St. Simons plantations. As the center of community life around which religious and social life revolved, its loss during the Civil War was a terrible blow for islanders. In 1862 the church was desecrated and virtually destroyed. A way of life and a strong refuge were lost, so the families lovingly dismantled the remaining structure, saving what they could. Salvaged were the four-columned credence table base to the right of the altar and some pews having carved crosses on the ends, most now located in the choir. The congregation then cleaved together, meeting to worship in homes and receiving Holy Communion from occasional visiting clergymen. These devoted people are buried behind the church, and many of their descendants are present-day communicants.
What remained of the first altar was incorporated into our present altar in 1884 when the church was rebuilt on the cornerstone of the original building. Shipbuilders constructed the new church, cruciform in shape and resembling in design an inverted ship’s hull, denoting the ship of faith. Our Mother Church, Christ Church, Savannah, originally loaned the Communion rail, two clergy chairs and pulpits for a period of ten years, but we still have them!
Christ Church is a gothic style building with a tall belfry and narrow stained glass windows. The stained glass windows, given in memory of loved ones, commemorate the early history of the church and St. Simons Island, as well as incidents in the life of Christ. For example, one window shows the ministry of John and Charles Wesley at Frederica under live oak trees. The ship that brought John from Savannah is seen in the background. Another window celebrates the founding of Georgia by General James Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe is shown with the Native Americans, Chief Tomochichi and his son. Still another window with a biblical scene has been authenticated as an unsigned Tiffany masterpiece. The largest window, designed and executed in Germany in 1899, is dedicated in memory of Reverend Anson Green Phelps Dodge, Jr., who rebuilt Christ Church.
Deacon Anson Green Phelps Dodge, who later became rector, built the new church as a memorial to his first wife. The Italian marble bust at the rear of the church, carved by the American sculptor Birdwell, is of Anson Dodge as a boy. The large stained glass window above it was given in 1898 by Rebecca Dodge, Anson’s mother. This Meyer window, from Munich, Germany, shows Peter, James and John with Jesus, in whose halo are depicted pearls, symbol of salvation worth more than all Earth’s treasures. Our baptismal font was a gift of Anson Dodge’s former Sunday School class in the northeast.
At the age of twenty-four, the Reverend Anson Dodge funded and built four other churches on the island: Transfiguration at the beach; St. James at Epworth for mill workers (now re-consecrated as Lovely Lane Chapel); St. Perpetua at German Village; and St. Ignatius on Demere Road for the black families living in the area, who frequently had their own black minister and teacher. All were missions of Christ Church. When St. Ignatius closed as a mission in the 1980’s its remaining membership and that of Christ Church were merged. Daily Morning Prayer and Sunday evening services are still held there today.
At one time Sunday School classes were conducted in the pews of Christ Church, which in 1933 was enlarged by moving the rear wall to extend the nave to its present length. The Wesley windows—the last two bays of rear side windows beyond the Oglethorpe window—were installed in 1968. A Tiffany window with the artist’s two trademark red dots, opposite the main entry, was given by descendants of A. Gould; it bears the inscription from Proverbs 31, “Her children arise up and call her blessed.”
Adorning the altar, pulpit, and lectern are needlepoint hangings created by Mrs. William Chisholm at 76 through 93 years of age. A member of Christ Church along with her husband, she designed these to include the liturgical colors for all the seasons of the church year except Lent, when they are removed. Mrs. Chisholm designed and executed much of the needlework for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Under her tutelage the women of Christ Church needlepointed our kneeling pads and chair cushions.
The oldest graves in the cemetery are unmarked ones known to date from 1796; the oldest marked grave located thus far is dated 1803. Although a section east of the church, near the altar wall, is set aside for burial of clergy and their families, The Reverend Matthews’ gravestone, in the shape of an altar table, is located behind the church. It was the custom in those days to use such a gravestone as a table to feed the poor. The present steeple cross is carved from a single block of wood too large for the undertaking of local artisans. It was carved by Portuguese craftsmen working in this area in the 1980’s.
The countless visitors to historic Christ Church, Frederica and its cemetery through the years have included former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, Queen Wilhelmina, Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, and Vice-President Alben Barkley, all of whom worshipped in the present building.
Today Christ Church, Frederica has nearly 1,000 members joining in increasing opportunities for involvement in worship, prayer, study, service and fellowship. Parishioners serve as Sunday School teachers, Acolytes, and EYC advisors. Docents keep the church open to visitors 364 days a year. Martha’s Guild members take food to bereaved families, and the Angel Guild to those returning home from the hospital, or otherwise in need. The Altar Guild, Brotherhood, and Adult and Children’s Choirs offer other avenues for service. Christ Church teams regularly serve the hungry at Manna House, and outreach funds support dozens of community and world wide charities.
The Episcopal Church Women, who sponsor the Annual Tour of Homes and Gardens and the Christ Church Cookbook, have both daytime and evening guilds. Within the parish are a Cursillo community, a Daughters of the King chapter, and an Education for Ministry group. Noon and evening Bible study classes, special Lenten programs, and Vacation Bible School provide opportunities for study in addition to Sunday School, First Communion, and Confirmation classes. Families with children from infants through high school meet for fellowship, choir, service projects, and some fun on Sunday evenings. Parish suppers, as well as Sunday morning coffee hour and our teams of greeters, also foster fellowship.
In addition to these and other parish organizations and activities, numerous committees function under the direction of our rector and vestry. Building upon our rich heritage at Christ Church, Frederica, we work together “...to know Christ and to make Him known to our parish, our community and the world...through worship, teaching, fellowship and service.”