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.
John Green’s 1819 drawing of St Peter’s Church Drawing in Vermont Museum, Bermuda National Trust
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.
As you enter the church through the old cedar doors, you will be struck by the huge quantity of wood used in the church’s construction. The ceiling beams resemble the ribs of a ship’s hull, perhaps not surprising in maritime-oriented St George’s, and the aromatic scent of Bermuda cedar often lingers. Candelabra, flags and banners hang over the old box pews and almost every inch of wall space is covered with memorial plaques.The Communion table and rails are made of local cedar and date back to the earliest days of the colony. The pulpit was made in 1660, with the two lower ‘decks’ added at a later date. The intention of the ‘three decker’ pulpit was to show the relative importance of the information delivered there – the top tier was and is reserved for the delivery of the sermon. The cedar dole cupboard, made around 1640 and beautifully restored, is very rare. Dole cupboards were designed for use in a church setting to hold charitable offerings for distribution (‘doled out’) to the poor of the parish.
Bermuda was once covered in forests of endemic Bermuda cedar trees which were invaluable for construction, ship building and furniture. However, between 1946 and 1953, ninety-five percent of the trees were killed by accidentally introduced scale insects. This wood is highly prized by Bermudians today and St Peter’s is a wonderful example of historic cedar construction and furniture.
More than forty memorials cover the walls of the church, some in remembrance of soldiers, many of whom died from yellow fever. Others commemorate prominent individuals in elegant archaic language. The famous English sculptor, John Bacon, whose works are found in many English cathedrals including Westminster Abbey, carved the beautiful Campbell memorial. His Excellency Lt Col William Campbell, briefly Governor of Bermuda, died in December 1796 just a few days after landing on the island – it is said of an illness contracted after a sumptuous turtle-soup banquet in his honour.
The first organ was installed sometime before 1816. A correspondent of the Bermuda Gazette in its issue of 13 April 1816 wrote of St George’s: ‘…we have a handsome parish church, a town clock, an organ, and a gallery, a town hall and court house’. The present organ is a Casavant two manual nine hundred pipe organ from Canada installed in 1984.
The vestry houses a superb display of sacred silver, the earliest piece – a Communion cup – dating back to 1625. Also exhibited is a complete Communion set purposely made for and sent out to “their Majesties Chappell” in Bermuda in 1697 by King William and Queen Mary of England. A 1640 King James Bibleis displayed together with a 1594 Geneva Bible.
Other items displayed record the social history of the church and include memorabilia from a visit by the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth of England, and the coffin plate of Governor Bruere of Bermuda who died in 1780. The coffin plate, together with the Governor’s remains and a musket ball alongside them, were discovered by archaeologists beneath the church floor in 2008.
A book of signatures of British royals, heads of state and other VIPs records their visits to the church over the years.
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.
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.