HISTORY

St George’s Parish Church

 

The Early Church

The history of St Peter’s Church begins in the summer of 1612 when, after a sailing voyage of nearly 11 weeks, a small group of about 60 English settlers landed in the virtually uninhabited islands of Bermuda. On a hill in the heart of the new Town of St George they completed a temporary church of Bermuda cedar wood “and Palmitoe leaves” in time for Christmas services of that year and it is here that the community has gathered for worship ever since.

 

St George’s Parish Church

The first small wooden church built was soon blown down in a strong gale and a more substantial timber framed replacement erected in 1619.  This building probably consisted of frame of hewn cedar logs, the walls likely made of a lime plaster applied to boards or a framework. However, a very destructive hurricane struck Bermuda in September 1712, destroying this little church along with many other buildings, and the vestry elected to rebuild in stone rather than repair the damage.

 

The new stone church was built by the collective effort of the whole town and the church wardens compensated the workers with rum punch instead of wages.  The original Communion table and altar rails from 1612 and the 1660 cedar pulpit were salvaged from the ruins and are still in use today.

 

In the early years the parish church served many functions.   The young colony’s first government assembly was held in the church in 1620, making it the world’s fifth oldest parliament.   The building also served as the courthouse, and provided storage for the tobacco crop, although its storage function was short lived as tobacco was not suited to Bermuda’s climate.

 

The church was repaired several times in the 18th century, and sash windows and a steeple were added in 1766.   The rector of the time wrote to the Bishop of London stating:  ‘I have had my church beautifully sashed, and a steeple built to it, towards which I was obliged to subscribe more than I was able.’

 

The town’s population expanded in the 1790s and early 1800s with the arrival of the British Military around the time of America’s fight for independence, and because the parish church became increasingly crowded the vestry undertook a major expansion of the building in the early 1800’s. The interior cedar box pews were rearranged and the vestry auctioned the right to sit in them to parishioners for an annual rent.     At some time before 1816, an organ was installed.

John Green’s 1819 drawing of St Peter’s Church

 Drawing in Vermont Museum, Bermuda National Trust

 

 

The Parish Church is Dedicated to St Peter

1826 saw the first episcopal visitation after more than two centuries.   Bishop Inglis of Nova Scotia dedicated the St George’s parish church to St Peter the Apostle on Saturday, 22 April.   The following dayan ordination service was held and the Bishop noted in his journal that he “… preached and administered the Sacrament to 126 persons, exclusive of coloured people.   The Church was crowded to excess.”   From then on the building was known as St Peter’s Church. Up until its dedication, it had been known simply as the parish or town church.   Some months after the church’s dedication, the steeple was removed, and a flat roof substituted with ‘ball, spindle and weather-cock and their appendages’ .

 

A severe hurricane in September 1839 caused extensive damage to St Peter’s. In the wake of this damage the vestry initiated another extension and created the present entrance with its famous 26 brick steps. At the same time the exterior of the church was decorated in the early Victorian Gothic style which was gaining popularity at the time.

 

Over the previous two centuries the church had been repaired, restored, enlarged and rebuilt, wherever possible incorporating wood and stone from previous building.   This renovation was the last stylistic alteration to the church.

http://demo.gateway.bm/b3db6182-eebf-47c7-a5b2-2d298264d620_files/image002.jpg

 

 

St Peter’s and the Unfinished Church

Almost 30 years later in 1869 a meeting in the old Town presented a rare spectacle - a gathering of parishioners all in agreement with building a grand new church because they  felt that St Peter’s was old and in poor repair. The dilapidated parish church was in danger of being knocked down

 

Fortunately, the Governor of the day offered the site of the old Government House (which is where the Unfinished Church now stands) to the vestry. This, together with concern that the demolition and rebuilding of St Peter’s might spread disease from the many yellow fever victims buried in its graveyard, caused the vestry to start building on the newly acquired site.   St Peter’s was saved from destruction but slipped into further decay.

 

However, financial constraints and internal disagreements between the various factions of the parish slowed work on the new church and as time passed, the desire for a new church faded away leaving the Unfinished Church, which was finally roofed in 1897, to the mercy of the elements becoming the picturesque ruin it is today. 

 

 

Queen Elizabeth II designates St Peter’s

“Their Majesties Chappell”

Because of St Peter’s heritage as the birthplace of Christian worship in Bermuda four hundred years ago, and in honour of the church’s 400th anniversary in 2012, Queen Elizabeth approved a redesignation of St Peter's, to be known as Their Majesties Chappell’.   This title reflects the name used to identify St Peter’s Church in a warrant issued on 18 March 1697 to the  ‘Master of His Maj’ies Jewell house‘on behalf of King William III and Queen Mary.  

 

The warrant requested the Master to send a silver Communion set to the Governor of Bermuda for use of ‘Their Maj’ties Chappell there’ ‘.This Communion set, engraved with the Royal cypher WR and William’s coat of arms, was duly prepared and delivered to Bermuda where it is currently displayed in its entirety, in the Vestry.   A grand Service of Intituling took place on 18 March 2012 to announce the redesignation of the church.

 

400th Anniversary Celebrations

The Rt Rev’d and Rt Hon Dr Richard Chartres, Bishop of London and Dean of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, visited Their Majesties Chappell and was celebrant and preacher at St Peter’s 400th Anniversary Service and Town Square party on 18 November 2012. 

 

 From 1612 until the early 1800’s, the Anglican Church in Bermuda was under the care of the Bishop of London and this visit was the first ever visit to Bermuda by a Bishop of London.   During his sermon the Bishop told the congregation that he “couldn’t resist the invitation to make belated amends.”  

 

Bishop Chartres brought with him a letter from Queen Elizabeth and this was read to the congregation by the Governor of Bermuda, Mr George Fergusson.

 

“I would like to extend my warmest greetings and wishes to you and the people of Bermuda in this special year, which marks both my Diamond Jubilee and the 400th anniversary of the Anglican Church of Bermuda.   I am very glad to be able to contribute to your celebrations by reviving the historical designation of the Church of St Peter founded in 1612 as “Their Majesties Chappell”.  The visit of the Bishop of London as the Dean of Chapels Royal underlies the continuing significance of the link between the Church and the Crown in the unfolding story of Bermuda.   I am most grateful for the continuing support and loyalty of the people of Bermuda, who have always welcomed me so warmly during my visits to the islands.   I hope that this year’s commemorative events, in which you have played such a significant part, will be memorable for years to come.”Elizabeth R.

 

The year 2012 marked four centuries of Christian worship in the islands of Bermuda.  The small congregation of those first settlers of 1612 in their little wood and palmetto leaf church marked the establishment of the oldest Anglican Church outside the British Isles and the beginning of the worldwide Anglican Communion which now has a membership of around eighty million.  

 

After 400 years, St Peter’s is in a good state of repair and an integral part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Town of St George.