An Early History of Christ Church, Frederica
The Colonial Period – The Mission
In February of 1736, General James Oglethorpe, who had founded the colony of Georgia at Savannah nearly four years before, arrived on St. Simons Island and laid the cornerstone of the town of Frederica and its fort. The outpost on St. Simons was a significant part of Oglethorpe’s charge to take control of “the debatable land” between the English colony at Savannah and present-day St. Mary’s to the south, claimed by the Spanish.
On the first day, Oglethorpe and the new colonists joined in Evening Prayer, quickly planting the roots of Anglicanism in island soil. A month later, The Rev. Charles Wesley, a priest of the Church of England and Oglethorpe’s private chaplain and secretary, took charge of the Frederica mission of Christ Church, Savannah on St. Simons Island. One of the first structures built within the walls of Fort Frederica was a 12-by-20 tabby building housing a storeroom on the lower floor and a chapel on the upper floor. Chapel services were held as long as the soldiers were there, as well as outside under the oaks.
The Rev. Charles Wesley lived and served at Frederica for just a few months. His insistence on daily services and “vigorous shepherding” of the Frederica flock led to a rebellion among his parishioners, and he sailed back to England in the summer of 1736. Charles is most widely known for writing 6,000 Christian hymns.
The Rev. John Wesley, Charles’ brother, was the Rector of Christ Church, Savannah. After Charles left Georgia, John made five trips from Savannah to Frederica over a period of several months, traveling by foot and canoe. He returned to England in December, 1737. John, along with Charles and others, founded the Methodist movement after returning to England.
In 1742, Oglethorpe’s army prevailed over Spanish forces, and the “debatable land” was secured for England. Oglethorpe sailed to England in July 1743, and his regiment was gradually withdrawn from Fort Frederica and was completely disbanded in 1749.
Georgia became a royal colony in 1752 and, in 1758, the province was divided into parishes with Frederica and Saint Simons Island designated as Saint James Parish. The town’s population decreased, a fire swept through in April of 1758 destroying most of the town, and by the time of the Revolutionary War, St. Simons was practically abandoned.
Following the war, however, these early beginnings were strengthened. And at the dawn of the nineteenth century, families began to arrive from Europe, the Carolinas, and Virginia, bringing their own Anglican traditions and an interest in growing cotton. The Episcopal Church was founded in America in 1789 as part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. St. Simons emerged as a producer of the finest cotton in the world, and an Episcopal church, was established on the island.
The Plantation Period – The Church Established
By 1808, St. Simons was home to 14 large cotton plantations, and the planters felt the need for an established church. They petitioned for a charter and won incorporation by act of the Georgia State Legislature on December 22, 1808 as the “Episcopal Church in the town of Frederica called Christ Church.” Former Fort Frederica land was granted for use by the church which became the second oldest Episcopal church in Georgia after Christ Church, Savannah. The planters were instrumental in the construction of the first church on the site in 1820.
While the new church was being built, the congregation met in the home of John Beck, who was paid $1.00 per week for rent, plus $.50 for cleaning and preparation of services. The Reverend Dr. William Best, an Englishman, was called as the first rector. However, he resigned after two years, discouraged by the church’s failure to construct a building immediately.
The Reverend Dr. Edmund Matthews replaced Dr. Best in 1810; he is remembered as “The Sometimes Rector of Christ Church, Frederica” in the small windows above the altar of the present church. During the War of 1812, British troops invaded the island, causing significant losses to the planter families and further delaying construction of the new church. An early 19th century recession added to the delay.
Not until 1820, did the church’s governing body feel financially comfortable with constructing a building. George Abbott laid the cornerstone of the church and preached the first sermon from its pulpit. Christ Church parishioners worshipped there until the outbreak of the Civil War.
The little church was a community and social center as well as a place of worship. Parishioners could pick up their mail, delivered by John Couper of Cannon’s Point Plantation, catch up on the news, and generally enjoy being together. The congregation’s leadership consisted of the planter families that had founded the church, names familiar in St. Simons history – Page, Couper, King, Hamilton, Demere, Abbott, Gould, and Hazzard.
In 1823, the three Georgia Episcopal churches – Christ Church, Savannah, Christ Church, Frederica, and St. Paul’s, Augusta – formed the first Episcopal Diocese in Georgia. Though the smallest of the three, Christ Church, Frederica played an important part of the life of the diocese. In 1837-1838, Warden James Hamilton Couper designed the building for Christ Church, Savannah, the mother church of the diocese, in which its congregation still worships.
Three more rectors served the church following Dr. Matthews’ death in 1827. The church sold the “glebe lands” to church member, Captain Charles Stevens, in 1848. These lands had been part of the land grant given by the town in 1808, which had been rented by planters with proceeds to be used for erection of a new church building. The church retained five acres and invested the sale proceeds in a Savannah bank.
Christ Church, Frederica was a vital congregation during this time, but with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, St. Simons Island was evacuated and all but abandoned. Union troops occupied the island and the little church. When island families returned after the war, they found their little church damaged beyond repair, and the church’s endowment, deposited in a Savannah bank, did not survive the conflict.
Rev. Edmund Brown tried to renew Christ Church after the war, but with a congregation too poor to rebuild the church and support a priest, he left the post in 1868. The islanders were faced with the destruction of their church and way of life, and began meeting for Evening Prayer at Black Banks Plantation, the home of Horace Bunch Gould, a vestryman and planter.
The Dodge Years-The Church Rebuilt
As the island moved into the later nineteenth century, timber mills began appearing in Darien and on St. Simons Island offering jobs to former plantation workers, management positions for planter families, and income for mill owners. Georgia pine and oak boosted the local economy when planters were struggling to hold on. “The Mills” became the commercial, social, and religious center of the island with the construction of a nondenominational chapel, St. James Union Church. Christ Church parishioners were once again able to worship in a church building. Today, the rebuilt church, located at Epworth, is known as Lovely Lane Chapel.
Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, Jr. was the grandson of one of the largest mill owners on the island, William E. Dodge of New York. Anson first visited the island in 1879 at the age of 19, dispatched to help his family with the lumber mill which his uncle George was overseeing at the time. He discovered the ruins of the little church and met its parishioners who touched his heart. With a plan to restore the church and become its priest, Anson began studies at General Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1882, Rev. H. E. Lucas, Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick, was appointed Priest-in-Charge of Christ Church to serve until “the Rector-designate, Mr. Dodge” completed his studies.
Anson and his wife, Ellen Ada Dodge were on an around the world trip in 1883 when she tragically died in Allahabad, India, probably of cholera. Heartbroken, he resolved to continue his call and resumed his theological studies in New York. In 1884, construction began on the new church, to be dedicated to the memory of Ellen; it was funded with Anson’s inheritance from her and his own substantial resources. Anson was named Rector in June of 1884 and ordained to the priesthood in 1885. The church had been completed and was consecrated in January of 1886 on the Feast of the Epiphany to the joy of its parishioners.
The Rev. Dodge conducted services at Christ Church, Frederica, at St. James, and at three new churches he established with Dodge funds. He was the center of missionary activity in southeast Georgia, setting up a number of trusts for the church and establishing The Georgia Mission Fund. In all, the Dodge Fund was responsible for the founding of some 34 Episcopal churches in southeast Georgia.
In 1890, Anson married Anna Deborah Gould of Black Banks Plantation, a descendent of the Gould and Abbott families who had helped establish the early church. Anson and Anna had a son who tragically died in a runaway carriage accident. Heartbroken, they responded by establishing the Anson Dodge Memorial Home for Orphan Boys in 1895 in their home at Frederica.
Anson Dodge did not enjoy good health, and at his suggestion, the vestry appointed The Rev. Watson Winn “Associate-Rector, with the right of succession” in 1897. The following year, Anson Dodge died at the age of 38 after giving his life totally to service.
Rev. Watson Winn was a Virginian and a descendent of a sister of John and Charles Wesley. Described by a church member as having a “versatile nature,” Winn would regularly go from the pulpit to the organ to play hymns and then back to the pulpit during church services. In 1910, he wrote a Commemoration with a detailed history of Christ Church, Frederica. He served as rector for 28 years, the longest term of any rector in the church’s history.
During Winn’s tenure, the island’s financial health waned again with the closing of the mills in 1906. Winn died in 1926, followed by Anna Dodge in 1927. Months after Anna’s death, the Dodge Home burned. Again, it seemed the church and its missions might nor survive. However, shortly before his death, Rev. Winn provided the benediction for the event that would usher in modern times, prosperity, and a small amount of fame for the island – the opening of a causeway to the mainland. Tourism provided the next economic boom for the island, and people began finding the island a delightful place to build a home and raise their families.
The History of St. Ignatius Church
Rev. Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, Jr. built St. Ignatius on Demere Road in 1886 for the formerly enslaved freedmen and women who were now living and working on the island, primarily in the mills. Following damage from a hurricane in 1898, parishioners immediately rebuilt the church and rotated it 90 degrees. St. Ignatius closed as a mission in the 1980s and merged with Christ Church, Frederica making it a full member of our parish. Saturday evening services are held here.
Future plans include rotating the church back to its original position, completing some renovations, and stabilizing the parking lot. As with Christ Church, the wood is heart pine which has never been painted or stained. The altar rail is hand carved. The lectern, Bishop’s chair, Priest’s chair, and Baptismal font were all donated by Lovely Lane Chapel. The stained-glass windows behind the altar were made in Philadelphia by the Willet Company depicting the Trinity.
The bell was installed in the 1980s and is from the WWII Liberty Ship, Henry Wynkoop. For years the windows in the church were translucent, jalousie-panel glass. Beginning in the year 2000, ten new stained-glass windows were designed by Mary Beth Keys, a parishioner of Christ Church, completed by the Wippell Company of Exeter, England, and blessed by The Rt. Rev. Henry I. Louttit, Bishop of Georgia, on April 29, 2001.
A plaque displaying some of the list of names of the first baptized members of St. Ignatius from 1870-1970 was installed in the church in 2009.