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St. Matthew's celebrates 175 years of faith, fortitude

August 30, 2011

By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard

JAMESTOWN – Using a huge banner proclaiming the church’s 175th anniversary as its sail, a team from St. Matthew’s Episcopal swept to a fourth place finish in this summer’s Fool’s Rules Regatta.
“It’s been a great year,” observes the Rev. Kevin M. Lloyd, rector for five-and-a-half years. A graduate of Wake Forest University and the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia, Mr. Lloyd was ordained at the Church of Ascension in Western North Carolina. After serving as an assistant rector in that state, his assignment at St. Matthew’s is his first church as rector.
“It’s been great for me, as part of the anniversary, to dig into the rich history of the place.”
That history includes the first recorded services of the Church of England in Jamestown, conducted by the Rev. Dr. James MacSparran, in 1747, at the home of Capt. Josiah Arnold. Mr. MacSparran had come across the Bay from the Narragansett parish.
St. Matthew’s Parish was organized in 1836 and became a mission of Trinity Church, Newport. After using a meeting house and building a second structure, a small cedar shingle building was erected in 1963. Later in the ‘60s that church was demolished and the Georgian brick church on Narragansett Avenue, now home to St. Matthew’s, replaced it. The parish hall was moved from the eastern side of the property and attached to the church.
Outstanding in the ministry of St. Matthew’s was the creation of the Movable Chapel, in 1899, an idea proposed by a rector Mr. Lloyd describes as someone “who thought they needed more of a presence on the northern end of the island for the summer residents and the farmers.”
A chapel was built and set on wheels, then pulled by teams of oxen to the summer colony and, when they’d gone, down the road to serve the farm families in winter.
The congregation has been celebrating St. Matthew’s 175th anniversary for much of the year.
“We had an 1836-style liturgy at the beginning of the year,” says Mr. Lloyd. “I researched how they would have done things and some people dressed in the style of clothing [appropriate to] that time. It was a lot of fun.”
The church has also hosted and recognized people who were baptized and confirmed at St. Matthew’s over the years and offered a special blessing.
On Memorial Day, “Fifty or 60 members marched in the parade with the big banner,” notes the rector, and next week both the service and the parish picnic will take place under a magnificent beech tree on the property.
“Everybody has had such a great time.”
This weekend, the church will continue its celebration with a free organ concert featuring guest musician George Matthew Jr., director of music at First United Methodist Church of Burlington, Vt. He is also carillonneur of Middlebury College and Norwich University and accompanies the Middlebury College/Community Chorus.
The concert will be performed on a 14-stop tracker organ built in Germany in 1968 by E.F. Walcker. The organ, acquired from a Catholic church in Providence, was installed at St. Matthew’s in 1988.
The organist, notes Mr. Lloyd, “played his first concert at St. Matthew’s at the age of 16 and his godmother was [the late] Betty Robinson, a longtime member.”
There is more to come. On the weekend of Sept. 24-25, the congregation will hold a Saturday night gala and a “festive celebratory service” on Sunday, around the feast day of St. Matthew.
Average attendance at worship services is around 125 with that number declining in summer when, the rector says, “people are busy on the water.” Things get back to normal as the school year begins.
Things were often far from normal in the early days.
In 1775, for instance, 200 British soldiers landed at East Ferry, setting houses and barns aflame and stealing livestock. Town records note that Jamestown was left “depopulated, distressed and defenseless [in a] most calamitous and distressed situation.”
It took the town years to recover and the population dwindled. At one point there were seven Quakers and six members of Christian denominations of which only one was an Episcopalian.
As the new church took shape, it could seat 200 and had a regular attendance of half that. Sunday school offerings were sometimes as little as 12 cents and the sum collected at the worship service no more than $2.
From January to June 1840, the minister was paid $71 and was sometimes reproached for being too plain spoken. According to a church history, when the Rev. Elisha F. Watson’s wife suggested he be more careful in his speech, he replied that “the people of the parish were not possessed of sufficient intelligence to notice grammatical mistakes.”
A short time later, when the pair passed an ox standing by the roadside, the same minister noted that the ox had “a very intelligent looking face.” The historian recorded, “It struck me as being rather out of the natural order of things that oxen’s faces should beam with intelligence, while the people of his parish should be so lacking in that respect.”
Sometimes visiting clergyman would travel from Newport by sailboat and, if the waters became choppy, were forced to turn around and go back. In one instance, in 1855, the bishop persuaded a man to row him to Jamestown. The boat owner agreed, on the condition that his important passenger lie in the bottom of the boat and serve as ballast.
When they finally reached shore, there was no one to meet him.
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church of today has gleaming hardwoods, a vaulted ceiling and a stained glass window behind the altar bearing the likenesses of SS Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A small, adjoining memorial chapel, used for Wednesday morning Eucharist and private meditation, is decorated with stained glass windows saved from the old chapel.
A church that has survived the upheavals of nature, demographics and economic change, it is a testament to faith and perseverance.

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at mgs3dachs@cox.net.

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