A Short History of St. Paul’s Memorial Church, Charlottesville, VA
Our church began in 1908 as a mission to the students at the University of Virginia. The first service was held in September 1910 in a small wooden church opposite the Rotunda. The initial fund-raising campaign invited contributions in honor of distinguished alumni, faculty and friends of the University; it was known as the “ Memorial Plan” and gave the church its name. St. Paul’s became a parish church in 1924. The current building was then started in 1926 and finally consecrated in 1950 when the debt was retired.
Since then the mission of the church has evolved beyond the initial focus on the university: to celebrate and bear witness to God’s love in our community, the University of Virginia, the region, and the world beyond us. By our worship, our teaching, and our outreach we seek to make known God in Christ, equipping our members for service in the world.
Details of the history and related issues have been documented at various points including, for example, by the Reverend Paula Kettlewell for the 75th anniversary of the church in 1985. The 2007 Parish Profile and the History of the Chaplaincy also offer summaries. These and more recent documents are available on the church website. The Vestry Long Range Planning Report 2011 is an 83-page comprehensive work, which looks at global and local trends in the Episcopal Church and in our own congregation and makes for very clear informative reading. It is summarized in the “Be Bold!” document of 2012 with specific challenges for our future. The 2012 Building Task Force Interim Report examines the appropriate use of our facilities and how inviting, accessible, safe, and sustainable they are, and it creatively explores uses over the next 100 years. These latter three reports can be easily found on the church website. Finally, the 2015 Annual Report provides the most up-to-date information.
The current story focuses on changes since Rev. David Poist retired in 2006 after a 29-year tenure. His associate rector, Rev. Paula Kettlewell had stepped down about one year earlier. There was a 3-year transitional period ending with a call to the Rev. Jim Richardson, who arrived in 2008. What follows is an overview of events and changes in the last seven years, which include Jim Richardson’s tenure as our rector until 2015 and the interim period following his departure.
In 2010, we celebrated our 100th anniversary with a visit by the Presiding Bishop that coincided with an epic snow storm. This did not dampen the party! Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori challenged us: “Your next 100 years will be built on [the] courage to speak truth, to pluck up and pull down human structures of injustice, and to build and plant a community of peace . . . May your words and deeds be bold!”
The University mission is flourishing with increased visibility of the Skinner Scholars and their contributions to the parish, the community and beyond. These undergraduate and graduate students receive funding from a bequest made to the University by James H. Skinner, who was a UVA graduate and Civil War veteran. The university administers the funds based on recommendations from the rector of St. Paul’s and assisted by a lay advisory committee. The original intent was to support young men intending to enter the Episcopal ministry; this is now more broadly interpreted to include all students in a variety of service to one of the Episcopal churches in Charlottesville. There are currently over 30 Skinner scholars. The Canterbury House, one of the buildings owned by the church, is becoming an intentional community for students.
At times of social crisis, the church has been kept open as a sanctuary and a place of prayer for all, and there has been direct outreach to those in the University and the community experiencing trauma and loss. There has also been a growth in community outreach, partnering with other faith communities in and around Charlottesville on local and social justice issues. These initiatives include IMPACT (Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together), PACEM (People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry) and the Alliance of Interfaith Ministries. Other well-established ministries continue, such as Salvation Army dinners, the annual Crop Walk, and generous responses to requests from the Episcopal Relief and Development fund. We continue to support the African Development Project, which parishioners helped launch in 1985.
There have been administrative improvements, particularly with enhanced Internet accessibility and a well maintained and informative website. Most mailings are now electronic, supplemented by paper copy as needed. An additional change has been the increase in lay staff. Simultaneously, the Vestry has decreased from 18 to 12 people, and has a more “hands on” involvement in running the church than previously.
Several internal ministries have been started. We now have an active Stephen Ministry providing ongoing care and support to parishioners in need, backing up and supplementing the pastoral work of the clergy beyond the initial intervention. We also have a specific ministry to the elderly, with a dedicated part-time staff member, paying attention to the needs and circumstances of those not always so able to seek care for themselves.
The biggest liturgical change has been the acceptance of marriage rites for gay and lesbian couples. This was strongly supported by Rev. Jim Richardson and the congregation. We are trying to create a more congenial space for young children and their parents within the church service, which is an ongoing challenge. The youth programs have been in flux, even as to the appropriate timing of church school: before, during or after the main morning service?
Like most mainstream churches, our Sunday attendance is decreasing, with significant loss over the past few years. A large part of this attrition has been families with children, some of whom transferred to other local churches. There are also those who prefer not to hear overt political messages from the pulpit, whether about the environment or gun control. As always, we struggle to find the middle way, the ancient Anglican ideal.
The congregation is also aging with inevitable loss through illness and death. Our pledges are down in the face of maintaining an aging building as well as addressing constant needs for increased community support and outreach.
In summary, we are constantly challenged to do God’s work. St. Paul’s Memorial Church on the corner intends to meet the challenge.
- prepared by the Rector Search Committee, April 2016