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HISTORY oF ST. PETER'S
History of Saint Peter's Church
Located in the center of “The First Town In The First State”, St. Peter’s Church has served the spiritual needs of this community since 1680. Early settlers who were members of the Church of England formed the first congregation. Meeting in homes and later in the Court House, they petitioned the Bishop of London to send clergy to serve them and other churches in Sussex County. The first missionary arrived in 1708, but stayed for only a year. The Sussex Mission owes its permanence to the Reverend William Becket who came to Lewes in September 1721 and remained until his death in 1743. He is buried in St. Peter’s churchyard. Under his leadership, not only St. Peter’s, but three other churches flourished in Sussex county.
In a letter of October 1728 to the Bishop of London, Becket describes St. Peter’s Church as follows:
[it is] 40 feet in length 24 broad, the wall between the plate and the sill is 15 feet. The frame...Wood. the Roof...covered with Cypress Shingles and the wall with Boards of the same wood,..the walls wainscotted with Cypress plank as high as the tops of the pews. The Pulpit, reading desk, Communion Table and Rail are handsomely built of Black Walnut - the pews...of pine plank...the number of people frequenting this
church I reckon...about 150.
The original communion table is still in use as the altar in the present church. The church also has the original Book of Common Prayer used by the first congregation. In 1773 the church was presented a silver communion service made by John David, Silversmith of Philadelphia. It consists of four pieces, a flagon with domed cover for wine 10” high, chalice with removable cover 12” high, and a paten 10” in diameter. Each piece is inscribed “The Gift of the Honorable John Penn Esq. To St. Peter’s Church in Lewis Town June 10, 1773.” The service is still used for communion on special occasions. John Marshall Phillips, Curator at Yale University, wrote that the Chippendale Period communion service was “outstanding” and “the finest silver in Delaware.” The silver has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Christie’s in London, and in other museum exhibits.
Clergy for the Sussex Mission were supplied by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel from London until the Revolution. St. Peter’s survived the split with The Church of England, and in 1785 became a part of The Protestant Episcopal Church in The United States, independent from The Church of England.
It is not known exactly when the first St. Peter’s Church was built, although it was sufficiently finished to hold services when Becket arrived in 1721. The vestry minutes record the building of the second church in 1808 as follows:
The Wardens, Vestry, Trustees, and other Members of the Congregation
of St. Peter’s at Lewes agreed to build a New Church of the
same size of the Old one, and to set it about 30 or 40 feet to the South
and West of the old Church, which was so much decayed it would not bear repairing.
The new church was raised in June, and on 15 September 1808 the Rev. James Wiltbank preached a sermon to the congregation in the completed building, which sat on the site of the present building.
In 1848 it was decided to build a new building to replace the second church “which was much decayed and badly constructed for a house of worship.” In 1853 the old church was moved to the southwest corner of the churchyard on Third Street. Plans were purchased from a Philadelphia architect and on 27 May 1854, The Right Reverend Alfred Lee, Bishop of Delaware laid the cornerstone of the present building. The vestry asked Bishop Lee to consecrate the church in 1858, but the church was probably finished long before this, for Episcopal churches can only be consecrated when all debts have been paid. The steeple was added in 1870. The interior of the church was refurbished in a Victorian gothic style in 1889, but has since been restored to a modified colonial style. A sacristy and other rooms were added to the rear of the church in 1903.
Over the years, the church has acquired all of the property bounded by Second and Third Streets, and Market and Mulberry Streets. The parish house was built in 1924 on a lot given to the church by Dr. C.H.B. Turner, a former rector of the church. It was rebuilt and enlarged in 1994. Today it is used for many church activities and is shared with a variety of community groups. The rectory is located at 213 Mulberry Street. The house on the corner of Second and Mulberry Streets commonly called the Ryves Holt House is believed to be the oldest standing building in Delaware. It was recently sold by the church to the Lewes Historical Society, although the church retained ownership of the land.
The church also owns a “new” cemetery located near the end of Pilottown Road on the site of the fort built by the original settlers in 1631 and the Ancient Burial Ground. It was established in 1955 after it was determined there were no longer any burial sites available in the church yard.
Today, more than three hundred years after its founding, St. Peter’s Church is an active faith community welcoming all to share in our fellowship.