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Our proud history of community and acceptance

St. John’s Episcopal Church was founded on October 7, 1863

On that day, a group of fervent Christians who had been meeting under the leadership of the Rev. Joshua 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.

VIDEO HISTORY: Part 1, Birth of a Parish

The first of ultimately a 5 part series on the very interesting history of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Gloucester, MA. ”Birth of a Parish” covers the period when the first Anglican minister came to Cape Ann in 1625 to when the church was built in 1864. The motives of the founders and the influence of the Oxford movement are discussed. This version was updated and enhanced in March of 2020.

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.

VIDEO HISTORY: Part 2, A Free Church in Gloucester

Part 2, “A Free Church in Gloucester” covers the commencement of the church in 1864 through the arrival of The Reverend Joseph H.C. Cooper in 1908. Parish history is interwoven with the story of Gloucester’s fishing boomtown years and the incredible toll sustained by the fishing families, many of whom were Anglicans from the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. A complete revision of Part 2 with additional material was posted on March 12, 2020

VIDEO HISTORY: Part 3, The Reverend Mister Cooper

Part 3, “The Reverend Mister Cooper” covers the period between 1908 and 1936, when Joseph H. C. Cooper was minister. World War 1, the 1918 flu pandemic and the Great Depression are discussed with an emphasis on the interesting and dedicated parishioners from this time. Among these were John Hays Hammond Sr. and his son the inventor John Hays Hammond Jr., the actor Leslie Buswell (who with A. Piatt Andrew began the American Field Service in World War I) and Ben Pine, a fisherman from Newfoundland who was integral to the schooner racing competition with the Canadians. St. John’s parishioners Bill Chapin and Sereda Feener tell depression era stories. A refreshed version of Part 3 with many enhancements was posted on March 13, 2020.

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

VIDEO HISTORY: Part 4, The War Years

Part 4: “The War Years” covers the decade from 1936 to 1946. The 75th Anniversary of the parish, the run up to World War II, and the war years are covered. Parishioners interviewed in 2015 tell personal stories of their involvement during this time. You’ll hear an eyewitness account of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the experience of being at the helm of a Destroyer Escort during a horrific storm in the North Atlantic and other interesting stories of how the church and the parishioners dealt with this tragic time. As always, the soon to be booming fishing industry continued to be a source of tragedy and loss for the people of Cape Ann.

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