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A history of faith

Oct 27, 2016 09:08AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Gallery: St. Mary Anne's Church [16 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

When the Declaration of Independence was new, people had already been meeting for worship at St. Mary Anne's Church for about 70 years. And the church has been active ever since.

Today, the four-acre church property stretches from the North East Creek to South Main Street in North East, surrounded by a stone wall.

“Sometimes, people drive by and think it's a museum. If I'm out working in the garden or whatever, people will ask what time it opens,” said the church Rector, John Schaeffer, during a tour of the church grounds. “I say, 'Well, we're open on Sundays, and we're here on Wednesdays.' It's not a museum.”

Schaeffer, who arrived at St. Mary Anne's with his wife last February from the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, said, “This building and this church yard are a sacred trust. We have so much history here. It's a glorious place.”

In his time as the leader of the Episcopal congregation of about 450 people, Schaeffer has learned much of the history of the church. When he leads services on Sunday mornings, with the weight of all that history, “It's humbling,” he said. “We have not only this property to maintain and cherish, but we have a community to serve. We do operate one of the largest food pantries in Cecil County.”

The church looks much the same as it did when it was built in 1743, replacing a much smaller wooden 1709 structure whose foundation lies beneath the present building. The rounded ceiling gives the interior wonderful acoustics for singing. A bell tower was installed in 1904, moved from its previous position on another wall of the church.

The interior was refurbished in the 1950s. But history is everywhere, both inside and outside the building. A cornerstone located just below ground level on the southwest corner of the building bears the etched initials of the Rector and Vestrymen of St. Mary Anne's, dated 1743.

Before American Independence, the church was part of the Anglican Church of England. Around 1715, Queen Mary Anne of England bequeathed a large sum of money to support the Church of England in the colonies. St. Mary's Church received a huge Bible dated 1716, a Book of Common Prayer dated 1683, and a silver chalice and plate that is still used on holidays and special occasions at the church. It is believed that, in recognition of the gifts, the church changed its name to reflect the giver -- St. Mary Anne's.

Schaeffer said the land bordering the church held shops and houses in the 1700s – notably a brick works on the riverbank behind the church, and businesses along Church Point Road that runs from Main Street to the river. It is believed that the bricks used to build the church came from the brickyard, only 100 feet or so from the church site.

In its early years, North East was a busy river town full of tradesmen and businessmen, with fertile farm fields surrounding the village. Nancy Ball, a longtime member of St. Mary Anne's, said she's the church's “unofficial historian,” and detailed some of what is known about the history.

“We're very fortunate that we have most of our early Vestry minutes,” she said, “along with the registry of births, deaths and marriages. We also have a big book of Maryland laws from the late 1600s that's very boring,” she added, laughing.

Through the 1700s, today's North East Creek was a major transportation route, since the only roads were widened footpaths that had been used by the area's Native American tribes, and those trails turned into muck whenever it rained. Given its history and location, the church was at the crossroads of the American Revolution, and Ball noted that church minutes from the era mention British troops in the area, looking for supplies.

“The English appears in our Rivers and Bays and our Vestry thereby being disturbed could not meet & therefore cannot be accountable for any fines imposed,” the minutes noted in September 1777.

In 1733, church notes record that Rev. Walter Hackett baptized many people at the church, including one Native American and one black man. Such an act would certainly have been extremely controversial at the time, Ball said. “We do know that there were Shawnee in the North East area, but soon after the white settlers came, they moved West and ended up in the Conestoga, Pa., area. So there weren't that many left to convert here,” she said.

“In the original church, there were box pews that were rented by local families for an annual fee,” she explained. “No one else could use the pew. If you couldn't afford a pew, you sat upstairs in what they called the 'gallerie.' This has never been a wealthy church or wealthy town, so they needed somewhere for all the people to sit.”

There are no surviving records for early burials in the cemetery, Ball said, although there are several plain, flat stones inserted vertically here and there, suggesting graves of people who could not afford to have a stone carved. “It's in the Vestry minutes that people were coming into the cemetery and burying people without checking with the Vestry first,” Ball said. “In defense of that, there were years when we did not have clergy, and the Vestry met only every three years during those periods.”

The area's gravelly soil is difficult to dig, she said, “and it's noted in the minutes that they admonished the sexton for not digging the graves deep enough. It must have taken him days to dig one deep enough.”

Ball said North East was a prominent region for commercial hunting and fishing in the 1800s, with meat shipped by rail to nearby cities for sale. Before that, the area was known for producing baskets, and there was a rolling mill in town that was part of the Principio Works.

“There's a diary quote in our records from a man who was on his way to Philadelphia to sign a treaty with the Native Americans, and he had come up the river and spent the night here,” Ball said. “He describes the town, in around 1750, as having two 'ordinaries,' which is what they called inns, a bakery, two or three houses, and a mill. He didn't mention the church, which surprises me, because he would have landed here by the church, at the foot of the street. He also mentioned that he and his group decided to 'lay on board' that night because of the impression they had of the town. That's the earliest mention of the the town of North East that anyone's aware of.

“This really was the frontier at one time,” she said. “In Maryland then, you could pay your taxes in wild animal hides. Actual money was very scarce.”

During the Civil War, Maryland was a border state between the Union and Confederacy, and as a sign of that divided loyalty, from 1874 to 1891, a former chaplain in the Union Army served as Rector of St. Anne's, and from 1891 to 1904, the rector was the last surviving member of Robert E. Lee's staff.

Ball is proud of the long history of St. Mary Anne's, and of the fact that it is still an active congregation. The church and grounds are not on the National Register of Historic Places, although the possibility has been discussed in the past, she said.

“It's great that this is still a functioning church,” she said. “So many old churches are gone, or turned into shops or restaurants. It's still a very vibrant church. There's a lot of history here to be proud of.”

St. Mary Anne's Church is at 315 S. Main St., North East, Md. Tours can be arranged. Call 410-287-5522, email office@stmaryanne.org, or visit www.stmaryanne.org.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.


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