If you thought the City of Newport had a long history, you should spend some time reading up on each and every church, congregation, parish and religious meeting place. The triumphs and tribulations of each organization over hundreds of years is beautiful, remarkable and something that we should all spend more time learning about.
There are literally dozens of churches that call The City By The Sea home, here’s a look at some of the oldest and most historic churches in the area and some tidbits of their history that you might not know.
Keep on discovering, Newport is an amazing place….
Saint John The Evangelist – Founded in 1875, Built in 1894
Washington & Willow Street
1 – St John’s the Evangelist began meeting in the Third Street home of Peter and Harriet Quire in 1875.
2 – Peter Quire had worked with the Quakers in Philadelphia on the Underground Railroad prior to moving to the Point, a neighborhood first settled by the Quakers. By the end of 1875, the congregation had built its first church, now used as their Guild Hall.
3 – From its very beginning, many of the members were of modest means, though supported by the generosity of some of Newport’s more famous residents, including the Astors, the Browns, and the Chanlers. The church also had an early connection with the Naval War College, two of whose founders served on the vestry
4 – In the 1890s, the church was in financial straits, and it looked as if it might close, until Captain (later Admiral) Alfred Thayer Mahan brought the plight of the young church to the attention of his friend Sarah Titus Zabriskie, who in 1893 donated $100,000 toward the building of the Zabriskie Memorial Church in memory of her late mother, Sarah Jane Zabriskie. The cornerstone was laid in 1894 and the church was consecrated in November of that year.
5 -The beautiful stained glass windows of St. John’s Church illustrate many episodes of their religious history. Begin in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the south wing of the Church, and move to the right [clockwise] around the nave. Highlights of the New Testament tell the story of the life of Christ from His birth to betrayal, death, resurrection and Ascension.
Information from Saint John The Evangelist Website
United Congregational Church – Founded in 1695, Built in 1857
73 Pelham Street
Five Fun Facts
1 – The congregation was gathered as Newport’s First Congregational Church in 1695 by Rev. Nathaniel Clap, a Harvard College graduate who ministered to the Newport congregation until his death in 1745. The Second Congregational Church of Newport started another congregation in 1735, but the two later reunited.
2 – The congregation was active during the American Revolution and both churches’ meeting houses were used as barracks and hospitals by the British and French troops in Newport. Dr. Samuel Hopkins was the minister of the church in the late eighteenth century.
3 – The current building is a Romanesque Revival structure, designed by Joseph C. Wells of New York City and completed in 1857. It is a basically rectangular building, built out of Connecticut brownstone, with two ornately decorated towers.
4 – In the 1880s the congregation retained the artist John LaFarge to redecorate its interior. LaFarge had recently completed work on Trinity Church, Boston, and sought to provide a more elaborate interior than he was able to in Boston. He produced twenty stained glass windows and a series of murals, which represent the only fully integrated ecclesiastical interior he produced.
5 – The church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012, in recognition for the unique interior decorations executed in 1880-81 by John La Farge
Information from United Congregational Church on WikiPedia
Emmanuel Church – Founded 1852, Built in 1902
42 Dearborn Street
1 – Many residents of the “fifth ward” (southern Newport) could not afford to attend church due to the tradition of churches selling pew seats. In 1841, three women from Trinity Church began to hold cottage meetings in their homes, inviting these neighbors to join them. By 1849, they had grown to 88 members and bought an empty Baptist Church on South Baptist Street. Various Episcopal clergy provided them with worship services.
2 – Natalie Bayard Brown replaced that building with the current stone building in memory of her husband , John Nicholas Brown, who died of Typhoid Fever in May of 1900. This building was designed by Ralph Adams Cram with the interior by Bertrand Grovesnor Goodhue.
3 – Edward King bought land on the corner of Spring and Dearborn Streets for $700 and donated it for a new church. The original church was a wooden Tudor building designed by Richard Upjohn and built by local carpenter, Michael Spencer. The total cost to build and furnish it was $15,000.19.
4 – At the entrance is our beautiful blue window, designed by Clement Heaton in 1925. The building of this window was documented by the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In 1996, photos of it were shown in Switzerland during an exhibit of Heaton’s works.
5 – The lectern is an angel with outspread wings to hold the bible. It was made by the Gorham Manufacturing Company and exhibited at the Columbian Worlds Fair in 1893, where it was purchased by Harold Brown and given to Emmanuel.
Information from Emmanuel Church Website
First Presbyterian Church – Founded in 1884, Built in 1894
4 Everett Street
1 – This is the oldest Presbyterian Church in Rhode Island, built of stone, with magnificent stained glass windows.
2 – In 1884, a group of earnest people in the United Congregational Church began a movement to establish a Sunday School and other Christian work in the southern part of the city. They made a start in a building on Thames Street not far above Wellington Ave. This became known as Grace Chapel.
3 – The cornerstone of a new church building was laid on the current site in 1892. The land was given to the congregation as a gift in memory of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Mumford Hammett.
4 – The building was raised, stone by stone, by the original members of the congregation as a sign of their personal commitment to God and to the mission of the Church in spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.
5 – Over the course of the church’s history, the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church has been served by eleven pastors
St. Mary’s Church – Founded in 1828, Built in 1847
12 William Street
Five Fun Facts
1 – St. Mary’s Parish was founded on April 8, 1828 and is the oldest parish in the Diocese of Providence.
2 – On February 2, 1847, Father James Fitton, purchased for four thousand dollars, the land on Spring Street where St. Mary’s Church now stands. Work began on August 7, 1848, with the men of the parish each volunteering at least one day’s labor to help dig the “trenches.”
3 – The church was dedicated on July 25, 1852, by Bishop Bernard O’Reilly, under the patronage of the Holy Name of Mary, Our Lady of the Isle.
4 – President John F. Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier on September 12, 1953.
5 -The church was designated a National Historic Shrine on November 24, 1968.
Information from St. Mary’s Website
United Baptist Church, John Clarke Memorial – Founded in 1638, Built in 1846
30 Spring Street
Previously known as the First Baptist Church in Newport, Second Baptist Church in Newport and the Second Baptist Church in America
Five Fun Facts
1 – It is one of the two oldest Baptist congregations in the United States and is currently affiliated with the American Baptist Church.
2 – The congregation has a rich heritage dating back to 1638. In that year, Dr. John Clarke, one of the original settlers of Aquidneck Island , began to hold worship services in the newly formed town of Pocasset , now called Portsmouth . One year later, he helped to establish Newport in the southern part of the island, where he continued to hold church services. By 1644, he had guided his congregation to become one of the first two Baptist churches in America.
3 – In 1656 while John Clarke was in England, a group of congregants broke off from Clarke’s church to found the Second Baptist Church in Newport, which followed Six Principle Baptist (Arminian) principles in contrast to Clarke’s more Calvinist theology. The Second Baptist Church eventually reunited with First Baptist in 1946.
4 – In 1737 Hezekiah Carpenter and Josiah Lyons donated the current land on Spring Street for a meeting house which was constructed that year. The current meeting house was constructed as a replacement in 1846, and the earlier building was eventually moved, then demolished
5 – According to the United Baptist Church’s website “in 1943, the Rev. Lester Revoir, who became the pastor of the nearby Second Baptist Church on Clarke Street, in 1942, added to his responsibilities by becoming the pastor of the First Baptist Church. Three years later, in 1946, the First and Second Baptist Churches merged to form “The United Baptist Church, John Clarke Memorial”, the present name of the church.” The church steeple was replaced with a smaller version after the 1938 Hurricane
Info via United Baptist Church Website
Touro Synagogue – Built in 1763
85 Touro Street
Five Fun Facts
1 – The Touro Synagogue is the oldest synagogue building still standing in the United States, the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue building in North America and the only surviving synagogue building in the U.S. dating to the colonial era.
2 – It was designed by noted British-Colonial era architect and Rhode Island resident Peter Harrison and is considered his most notable work.
3 – The interior is flanked by a series of twelve Ionic columns supporting balconies. The columns signify the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. Each column is carved from a single tree.
4 – The building is oriented to face east toward Jerusalem.
5 – In 1790, the synagogue’s warden, Moses Seixas, wrote to George Washington, expressing his support for Washington’s administration and good wishes for him. Washington sent a letter in response. Each year, the Touro Foundation sponsors an educational lecture series and holds a public reading of the George Washington letter as a celebration and pronouncement of religious freedom.
Information From Touro Synagogue’s Website & WikiPedia
Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House – Founded in 1644, Built in 1730
82 Touro Street
1 – The oldest surviving Baptist church building in America, The Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House boasts a beautifully carved pulpit and interior paneling.
2 – The meeting house was constructed in 1730 by Richard Munday on Barney Street, and can now be seen as part of the Newport Historical Society’s building.
3 – The first Baptist church in Newport was founded in 1644 by John Clarke. Several years later, a group of 7th Day Baptists (celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday) separated from Clarke’s church. In its early years this congregation met in a building at Green End, but as the congregation grew land on Barney Street was purchased for the purpose of building a new church.
4 – In its early years this congregation met in a building at Green End, but as the congregation grew land on Barney Street was purchased for the purpose of building a new church. The building was erected in 1730 and was considered to be one of the finest colonial interiors in Rhode Island.
5 – The grand reopening of the newly-restored Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House was celebrated the summer of 2009, in conjunction with a rare clothing exhibit, From Homespun to High Fashion.
Information from the Newport Historical Society
Trinity Episcopal Church – Founded in 1698, Current Building Built in 1726
141 Spring Street
Five Fun Facts
1 – The Anglican Church came relatively late to Newport; early settlers moved here to get away from the Church of England. By 1698, however, there were enough Anglicans, joined by Huguenots and Quakers, to form Trinity’s first congregation. The congregation quickly outgrew its 1701 home, and in 1726 built the church in which they worship today.
2 – A striking feature in Trinity Church is the wine-glass or chalice-shaped pulpit. It indicates the importance of preaching during the colonial period, and the sermon at Sunday services is still given from it today. Most colonial churches had central pulpits, but many later moved them to the side. This is the only center-aisle, freestanding, triple-decked pulpit left in America today.
3 – The chandelier closest to the Tower is original, made in Exeter, England, by Thomas Drew in 1728; the other three are reproductions. They seem to hang a little to the north, but actually it is the building which leans, showing the impact of three hundred years of winds from the sea.
4 – The original organ was a gift from Dr. George Berkeley, later Bishop of Cloyne (Ireland). Bishop Berkeley spent three years in Newport and was much indebted to the members of the congregation. It was Bishop Berkeley who posed the famous question: “If a tree falls in the forest, but there is no one to hear, is there sound?”. Local legend has it that the Bishop first formulated his query while meditating in his favorite retreat, a niche (still called “Bishop’s Seat”) in the craggy rocks overlooking Sachuest Beach.
5 – On the south side of the main aisle, adjacent to the Clerk’s Desk, is a box pew ornamented with engraved silver plaques commemorating visitors of special significance who were seated there. The earliest of these is George Washington; others include Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Andrew, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah. Archbishop Tutu addressed Trinity’s congregation a scant two weeks after learning he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As an aside, he smilingly mentioned that the Nobel Peace Prize was excellent life insurance.
Information from Trinity Episcopal Church’s Website
Great Friends Meeting House – Current Building Built in 1699
30 Farewell Street
Five Fun Facts
1 – Great Friends Meeting House is a meeting house of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) built in 1699 in Newport, Rhode Island. The meeting house, which is part of the Newport Historic District, is currently open as a museum owned by the Newport Historical Society.
2 – It is the oldest surviving house of worship in Rhode Island and features wide-plank floors, plain benches, a balcony, a beam ceiling, and a shingle exterior.
3 – The meeting house the Friends constructed in 1699 was a reflection of their status within the Newport community. During the first few decades of the eighteenth century, it was largest and most recognizable building in town, and throughout the 1700s it appeared as a landmark in maps and painted landscapes of Newport. From its original square shape with a hip roof and cupola, the meeting house grew to meet the needs of the growing Society.
4 – In 1705 and 1729, the building was expanded, according to the congregations’ minutes, “for the conveniency of the women’s meeting.” Despite the decline of Quakerism in Newport after the American Revolution, in 1807, 1857, and 1867, additions were constructed to accommodate the New England Yearly Meeting, which brought thousands of Quakers from all over the region to Newport to discuss theology, peaceful alternatives to war, and the abolition of slavery.
5 – After the departure of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends in 1905, the building was used as a recreation center. It became an important meeting place for the African-American community and it was here that the Martin Luther King Center, a social service agency now located nearby, was founded. In the 1970s, the meeting house was restored under the guidance of architect Orin M. Bullock, and was presented to the Newport Historical Society by its owner, Mrs. Sydney L. Wright.
Information from the Newport Historical Society
Originally Published: November 8, 2015.
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