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. Stpehen’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 Before the Civil War, black Episcopalians worshipped 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 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 In 1912, the Perry Street property was sold to The British American Tobacco Company , and the present building was erected on Halifax Street under 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 St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was also instrumental in the founding of the Bishop Payne Divinity School
for 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. Stepehen’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.
We are delighted to have you visit our church website and our hope is that as you browse through our pages, you will discover a church that will meet your spiritual needs.
What should I expect?
Parking: There is parking on the right, left and rear driveways. If you park on the left of the building, you will enter the church from the lot and go around to a sidewalk leading up to the main entrance for lift for wheelchair and walker accessibility. There are two restrooms to the left of the doorway. there are steps leading to the sanctuary to climb. If you park on the right side, there are steps to climb. You will enter the main door. Once you enter the main door there will be one bathroom to your right.
Greeting: You will be greeted when you enter by a greeter or an usher. You will be requested to sign a registry and complete an address form so that we can write you a thank you note for spending your time with us. If you desire, you will be assisted in locating a seat.
What should I wear? Wear whatever you are comfortable wearing. There may be people wearing tee shirts and sandals and people wearing coats and ties.
What about children? Children are welcomed in the service. There is a nursery with a changing table, youth bed, toys and sink provided if you need it.
What about communion? All baptized believers are welcome to receive the consecrated bread and wine in the service of Holy Communion. Communion takes place every Sunday when clergy is available. The ushers will direct you when it is time for you to receive the bread and wine. If you would rather only receive the communion bread, you may do so. If you elect not to commune, please step aside so that others in your row may go forward. If you have difficulty walking, then inform the ushers that you would like to commune at your seat and the clergy will bring communion to you after everyone else has received. When you go up to commune, there will be a chalice for intention (in which you dip your wafer) and for drinking the wine and you may choose either one.
Where should I sit? We have cushioned pews in St. Stephen’s Church. You may sit wherever you wish.
How long does the service last? Generally, the service lasts about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Will I have to speak? No.
Will I be singled out? The greeter will ask you before the service if you wish to be introduced to the congregation. You do not have to be introduced.
What are your services like? We are an Episcopal Church. Our services are liturgical. This means that they follow an outline or order of services found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It means that our services are usually centered around the sacrament of Holy Communion. The congregation is led by fulltime clergy, The Reverend Father Willis Renard Foster, Rector. When our regular or supply clergy is not available Morning Prayer Services are led by Lay Eucharistic Ministers/Leaders. There are two Sunday services. An 8:00 A.M. service followed by 9:15 A.M. Christian Education, and a 10:30 A.M. Service.
kWhat happens after the service? Members of the congregation provide light snacks and drink in the parish hall. Visitors have a chance to meet and mingle with members of the congregation if they wish. We hope you will join us!
l.What about religious education? Various educational opportunities are listed in our weekly parish notes, our quarterly newsletter, and our diocesan news and publications.
m.Is there a playground for kids? Yes. There is an area for outside activities on the church grounds.
n.Can I see more of the church? Yes. If you ask one of the ushers or the greeters, they will be happy to give you a tour of the church.
o.How do I join the church? You meet with the clergy or when they are not available with the Senior Warden.
p.What is your mission? The mission of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church is “to meet the needs of the Church and Community” so that all people, young and old, rich and poor, wise and foolish, who are drawn here may know themselves deeply loved and deeply welcome, nourished by joyful liturgical worship as the center of their common life, and living out their calling in generous service to one another and to our community.
q.What are your core beliefs? The core beliefs of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church are that Christian Churches of two different traditions can successfully worship together with mutual enrichment, and grow in Christian strength and love; that every person is of infinite value to God; that outreach to the greater community and world as well as sensitive care for each member of our church community are imperative to living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ with integrity.