A Historical Sketch

Posted by Clifton Dickens

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

St. Stephen’s Church has been the distinction of the oldest black church in the commonwealth of Virginia. Organized in 1867, the structure was consecrated in 1868. St. Stephen’s Church development as a parish coincided with the initial post-Civil War efforts to educate the newly emancipated blacks in Petersburg by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Before the Civil War, black Episcopalians worshipped at Grace and St. Paul’s churches in Petersburg. In late 1865, Alexander Weddell, a layman at Grace Church, organized a Sunday school for blacks at Grace Church. In 1867, Major, Giles B. Cooke, a layman at St. Paul’s Church, organized a Sunday School for blacks there. These two schools became the nucleus of what would become St. Stephen’s Church. Aided by the Freedmens’s Bureau, Weddell, Cooke, and Mrs, Caroline W. Bragg [a free woman] of Petersburg, organized a congregation which became St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The first house of worship was a former army hospital, Stringfellow Chapel which sat in Poplar Lawn at Sycamore Street.

Stringfellow Chapel was destroyed by fire in 1867, just prior to a visit by the bishop, who was to conduct a confirmation service. Led by Mrs. Bragg, Messrs. Weddell and Cooke, and aided by the Freedmen’s Bureau, and northern friends, the congregation obtained a site, erected a edifice on Perry Street and St. Stephen’s Church and consecrated by Bishop Whittle on May 18, 1868.

In 1912, the Perry Street property was sold to The British American Tobacco Company , and the present building was erected on Halifax Street ubder the leadership of the late Rev. Emmet E. Miller, Sr. The Parish Hall was in 1991, was funded by member contributions of friends. The $400,000 project was the first phase of a restoration program which began in 1986.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was also instrumental in the founding of the Bishop Payne Divinity Schoolfor Negro students which operated on Perry Street, West Washington Street and finally, South West Street. The existed over a 71 year period from 1878 to 1949 until it finally merged with the Virginia Theogocial Seminary in 1953. The school’s Emmanuel Chapel still stands today on the corner of South West Street and Wilcox Streets. The Gile’s B. Cooke Elementary School Building, located on the present-day, Peabody Middle School, Petersburg, is named in honor of our second priest, Rev. B. Cooke, who served St. Stpehen’s Church from 1873 to 1885. Following a legacy of many full-time, part-time priests, and Priest-in-Charge, our current priest is the Reverend Willis Renard Foster.

*The complete history of St. Stephen’s Church is recorded in the Reverend George F. Bragg’s story of Old St. Stephen’s, and from other historical church documents from which this information is extracted.