St. Mary’s Episcopal Church began in 1907. The first entry in the Parish Register is a record of a service held on October 27, 1907, with ten persons present. At this time there were evidently about eight Episcopalians in the lower part of Northumberland County (then called Lower St. Stephen’s Parish.) Services were usually held in abandoned schoolhouses in the Reedville area and conducted by seminarians from the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. Eventually the little congregation obtained the services of Rev. Lewis Carter Harrison, a recent graduate, who later recalled that he “was the first Episcopalian minister in St. Stephen’s Parish in 99 years.”
Serious efforts to obtain their own building began in 1910. Around this time the Fleeton Development Corporation was planning a summer resort at Fleet Point. Two lots in Fleeton were donated by the corporation for the church and Rev. Harrison began the design. Construction by Clyde Clark of Lively and subsequent outfitting were completed the following year and St. Mary’s Church was consecrated by the Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia on April 10, 1913. Cost of this effort was reported to be $5,000. The bell was purchased in Baltimore and donated by Capt. Isaac Bussell, and was first rung at Christmas, 1913.
Growth at St. Mary’s continued under another energetic seminary graduate, the Rev. William Taylor Willis, rector from 1913 to 1915. He later recalled his arrival in the area:
“I arrived in Reedville and was met (by C. S. Towles) at the boat “The Piankatank”….. I think the first time I saw St. Mary’s was on a Saturday morning….. the wind was blowing from the factories that morning and I smelled how Fleeton was supported.”
Rev. Willis proved to be quite an asset to St. Mary’s. He was among the first to minister to fish factory workers on the Reedville wharf as well as to others whom regular church services failed to reach. By 1916 St. Mary’s had forty-three communicants and seventy-six scholars in Sunday school. The Rev T. D. Hurari was the Rector in 1918 and some of his interesting words were recorded. He was observed to say of November 11th , ” … we all rejoiced of the news of the Armistice – St. Mary’s bell was rung with mad insistence proclaiming to the neighborhood the dawn of peace.” Later that year he remarked, “There was sunshine after many days of gloom. I am endeavoring to make the church the Centre – round which the community can come – I did not think of numbers but my prayers and aim was to bring Christ into our hearts.” But by the next January he had the following to say: “The morning services show a decrease. It was painful to see many on the ice pond on Sunday morning instead of being in church. Sunday school is poorly attended. I found out that in many cases the parents are to blame.”
But it was not only the lure of the ice pond. As the period of Reedville’s maximum prosperity began to wane in the 1920’s, St. Mary’s and other local churches began to face financial and other difficulties as many families left the area. Survival was achieved through the dedication of generation of parishoners and rectors. The efforts of the women of the parish are deserving of special note.
The Woman’s Auxiliary was formed in 1913 and was instrumental in helping raise funds for the furnishing of St. Mary’s. They met weekly, mostly in the Hotel Northumberland in Fleeton, to conduct business and hold a mission study. Dues were 5¢ a week and $1.00 per month. The focus of this group was missions, both local and foreign. The Auxiliary ceased to exist in 1915, and their work was taken over by a sister organization, the Ladies Guild, the forerunner of today’s ECW. Throughout the decades the Guild repeatedly played a vital role in generating much needed funds. They not only built or bought and repaired the various rectories the church owned, but funded repairs to the church itself and even paid the rector’s salary at times when the church could not afford to do so. It would not be an understatement to state that the untiring efforts of our women saved our church on more than one occasion. This same spirit is alive today in the St. Mary’s Thrift Shop operated by the ECW. The proceeds from this enterprise have gone to support church-related projects, community projects, scholarships and individuals in need in the community.
Our beautiful church has served us well since its dedication by Bishop Robert Atkinson Gibson on April 10, 1913. The stained glass windows, which were installed in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, depict many events in the life of Christ, and several include our patron saint, Mary the Virgin mother of Jesus. These windows are widely admired for their artistry and beauty. Our original parish house was dedicated in 1960, and was expanded to its present configuration in 1989.
Throughout most of St. Mary’s existence, we have shared clergy with our sister congregation St. Stephen’s. Sometimes, this has included as many as six Episcopal congregations in Lancaster and Northumberland Counties, which meant that the priest rode circuit among the six, and services were not held weekly. At other times, we have shared clergy with St. Stephen’s and Wicomico Episcopal Church.
No better summary of our history can be offered than the following excerpt from the “History of St. Mary’s” compiled in 1976 by Mildred Towles Wooding, daughter of C. S. Towles, the man who met Rev. Willis at Reedville wharf in 1913:
The membership has grown from the original eight. They are succeeded by new members coming in, who take up the work and carry on. There have been, through the years, many loyal members who give generously of their love, their time and their material possessions. We owe a debt of gratitude to all who have helped make St. Mary’s what it is. The Good Lord has richly blessed us by sending to us so many fine, unselfish and dedicated ministers. May we always be a church and people in whom Jesus Christ stands revealed.