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St. John's Stones Laid 170 Years Ago

The church has been around two lifetimes.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, according to the church web-site ‘the oldest existent church’ in Charlestown, may have had its beginnings in 1838, when Reverend Thomas Clark of Boston proposed a Charlestown Episcopal church.

On January 5, 1840 the first Episcopal services were held at Fuller Hall in City Square. ‘Seventy-five persons were present in the morning’ and more came in the afternoon. Nathaniel Bent, the Chaplain of the Navy Yard, led that service and became the first rector. A parish began to grow as Rector Bent held mid-week lectures in the Congregational Church on Town Hill, a Ladies’ Circle organized bazaars to raise money and the small ad-hoc congregation started Sunday School classes.

A year and a half later, on May 5, 1841, the cornerstone for St. John’s was laid and parishioners first worshipped inside the church that November.  Founders of St. John’s included Joshua Bates, a school teacher; George Kettel, who developed Chestnut Street and Charles Moore, editor of the Bunker Hill Aurora, which had its offices in the stone Otis building on Main Street.

During its one hundred and seventy years, St. John’s Episcopal has had several rectors and a flourishing congregation. One of it rectors, the Reverend Wolcott Cutler, was an avid photographer. His love of Charlestown bequeathed to us a trove of historical photographs. Many of these have enhanced the telling of the stories of At This Address.

  • Where is St. John’s Episcopal Church? 31 Devens Street
  • When was it built? 1841
  • Who built it? The architect was Richard Bond. His other church designs included Boston’s First Methodist Church on Temple Street and Federal Street Baptist Church. He may have studied the architecture of old Trinity Church on Washington Street in Boston in preparation for St. John’s, because of St. John’s pointed arches, crenelated tower and the tall center tower window.
  • What was it built for and who was the first occupant? It was built for the Episcopal congregation of Charlestown. They celebrated their first services in the church in November, 1841.
  • Why was it built? Partly in response to the population boom in Charlestown, which had grown to 11,500 by 1840.
  • How was it built?  In early Gothic Revival, of dark ashlar granite and brick.
  • What are the future plans for the structure? The church has had several renovations, principally in 1870, when a memorial stained glass was installed behind the altar and the organ was brought down from the gallery; and in 1926, when the stained glass windows were restored. On September 11, 2011 the parish welcomed as its new rector the Reverend Thomas N. Mousin.  On the parish web-site Reverend Mousin states the church’s mission: “We shape our life together with an on-going commitment towards integrating our 170 years of history with a hope-filled future right here in a rapidly changing Charlestown.”

Information for this article was compiled from various research materials, including http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashlar; http://www.stjohns02129.org; http://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/sets/72157622473902447/; A Century of Town Life by James Hunnewell, and Boston Landmarks Commission.

Kenneth Stone June 14, 2012 at 12:28 PM
The 1898 photo must be a different St. John's Church. Ken Stone
Alice Krapf June 14, 2012 at 01:47 PM
I think Ken is right. That picture may be St John's Bowdoin Street on Beacon Hill. Note the crenellations on the tower in this picture are two single pieces of granite between the corners on each side, whereas St John's Charlestown has nine pieces of granite of varying sizes on this west side of the tower. Also note building directly next to this side, which was always Old Rutherford Avenue.
Helen O'Neil June 14, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Thank you both. I think you're right. The flickr photo said St. John's, Charlestown but the web-site for St. John's Bowdoin Street http://stjev.org/ has a picture of this church. I appreciate your eagle eyes.
L. Montgomery June 15, 2012 at 01:27 AM
It's always a pleasure to read Helen's articles about historic sites around CTown. What was fun was actually running into Helen while she was photographing St. John's in preparation for this article after having not seen her for a while.
Helen O'Neil June 15, 2012 at 01:57 PM
Laura, it was so much fun to see you.
Mary Brock June 16, 2012 at 01:06 PM
Thanks for another informative, pleasant article. I would love to know more about the "Aurora" that you mention. Perhaps that will be upcoming?
Nancy Hannan June 17, 2012 at 01:26 PM
can't wait to visit this church. Helen thanks for the fantastic pictures.
Helen O'Neil June 18, 2012 at 01:43 PM
Hi Mary. Thanks for the question. The 'Bunker Hill Aurora and Farmers’ and Mechanics Journal' (what a name) was started in 1827 by William Weildon and George Raymond. The printing offices were upstairs in the Austin stone building at 92 Main (now Otis and Ahearne). The paper had a few name changes but continued publishing until 1871. According to James Hunnewell’s "A Century of Town Life" it was the first ‘permanent paper’ in Charlestown.
Jay K. June 18, 2012 at 06:06 PM
I really enjoy these stories Helen. Keep em coming!
Joseph June 18, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Thanks Helen. Soon you'll have enough of these to publish a great book!

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