St. John’s Episcopal Church was founded on October 7, 1863 when a group of fervent Christians who had been meeting under the leadership of the Rev. John R. Pierce, voted to constitute themselves as St. John’s Church, named in honor of St. John’s, Portsmouth, New Hampshire from whence the Rev. Mr. Pierce had come. The first call to the legal voters of the parish was April 8, 1865.
The founding benefactor of the parish was a Boston merchant, who summered in Gloucester, Theron Johnson Dale. He bought the land and cellar hole of the old Murray Liberal Institute on Middle Street and arranged a church building to be erected on the site. This was completed September 20, 1864. Mr. Dale held the mortgage and when he died unexpectedly in August, 1871, it was discovered that he had forgiven the mortgage. Bishop Paddock consecrated the church September 18, 1874.
It has not been appreciated that St. John’s was never a mission of an older parish, but a missionary parish in its own right. Theron Dale’s older brother was one of the founders of the Church of the Advent in Boston in 1844, and Theron was a devout parishioner there. This new church had all the hallmarks of a High Church missionary society in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Unlike all the Protestant churches on Middle Street (at one point there were five) the pews were always free. Without private ownership of the fabric of the church, it was open to all, rich or poor. Rich and poor flocked to it from the beginning. In 1868, 111 families were proud to belong.
Who needed the ministry of this missionary church? From the late 1850s to 1914, at any one time there were 2,000 unattached fishermen living in Gloucester boarding houses between voyages. The majority were Anglicans from Nova Scotia and the other Maritime Provinces. There was also a large contingent of Scandinavian Lutherans. They flocked to communion as often as possible, preparing themselves spiritually for the rigors of the North Atlantic fisheries. The young rectors–and there were seven between 1863 and 1892–ministered to them as best they could and petitioned the diocese to set up a real mission on the waterfront.
In 1891, this mission became a reality when the Fishermen’s Institute was founded, endowed, and given a suitable building by members of the summer colony. It was not just Episcopalian, but all the established members of St. John’s helped out.
Gloucester had been a summer destination since the 1870s, but the really rich Episcopalians began to build sumptuous houses and attend St. John’s beginning in the 1890s. The most generous of these was John Hays Hammond, mining engineer, who gave both the parish house and the rectory. At the same time, the hordes of unattached dorymen disappeared with the invention of a reliable marine engine and World War I. Many thousands of men from the Maritimes were choosing not to go back, but settle in Gloucester, marry and raise families. These families became the core of the parish. They did not forget their roots, but supported the unfortunate fishing families, particularly through the Grenfell Mission and the Newfoundland Society. The most famous parishioners among them were Captain Ben Pine and Howard Blackburn.
During the 1920s, the parish prospered with the rest of the country, then ran into problems during the Depression, and World War II, but throughout kept the faith alive and the services and education programs going. With the post-war prosperity, St. John’s sprang to life again.
In recent years, the parish has moved from identifying itself with the Canadian Maritimes and with the summer people, and has attracted a new group of devoted parishioners. Fewer in number, St. John’s is moving ahead proudly in its one hundred and forty-ninth year. It is particularly distinguished by its music and art programs and the imaginative forms of its liturgical practices. True to its roots, it participates in a bewildering number of social service outreach programs.
St John’s has long had a relationship with St. Mary’s Church in neighboring Rockport. Beginning in 1872, sporadic services were conducted by the rectors of St. John’s. In 1886, this was regularized and the parish, dependent upon a diocesan subsidy, was put under the spiritual supervision of St. John’s. On February 5, 1960, it was formally incorporated as an independent parish.
Mary Rhinelander McCarl, Parish Historian
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