Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The First Christ Church

A Church of George the 2d's reign
Still flings its shadow o'er the plain,
But mould'ring on its ancient base,
Must soon resign its resting place.
                       -Stephen Chester, New Bern, 1818

Engraved view of Christ Church from the c. 1824 Price-Fitch Map of New Bern

by John B. Green III

In our last post we discussed the 1871 destruction by fire and the subsequent rebuilding of Christ Episcopal Church.  That church, completed in 1824, and the reconstructed version that followed were actually the second and third churches to occupy that prominent Pollock Street site.  A much older church once stood in the familiar churchyard - the first Christ Church, completed by 1754 and demolished seventy years later after its replacement had been erected.

Act of 1745 concerning the building of Christ Church, from A Collection of all the Public Acts of Assembly of the Province of North-Carolina: Now in force and use (New Bern: James Davis, 1752)

Craven, later Christ Church, Parish of the Anglican Church was established in 1715 although no church seems to have been erected at that time or for many years thereafter.  A series of acts of the colonial assembly between 1740 and 1751 appointed commissioners for the parish to "erect and finish a Church in Newbern in Craven County" and imposed a tithe or parish tax on the inhabitants to pay for the church.  The 1740 act indicated that the commissioners had already made 100,000 bricks for the proposed church.  Eleven years later the act of 1751 noted that the church was "not Compleatly Finished."  Four years later in 1755, however, Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs was able to report to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel that "The church in Newburn is finished, and is a neat Brick Building."

The building was situated at the northeast corner of Pollock and Middle Streets with the entrance on Middle Street. As delineated in a border vignette of the c. 1824 Price-Fitch map of New Bern, the rectangular brick structure featured a three-stage brick entrance tower, supported by arched openings at ground level and  topped by a frame belfry with louvered openings.  Decorative urns marked the corners of the base of the belfry.  The eastern end of the church was designed with a semicircular bay or apse.  This church would serve the congregation until it was replaced by the larger 1824 Christ Church.  The old church is said to have been demolished shortly after the new church was completed and consecrated.

Detail of the 1769 Sauthier Map of New Bern, showing the position and outline of Christ Church at the northeast corner of Middle and Pollock streets

The long-buried foundations of the first church made a brief reappearance in the 1960s, confirming the outline seen on the 1769 Sauthier map.  In May 1964, as part of a new landscaping plan for the churchyard, the foundations were excavated by Morley Jeffers Williams, church member and landscape architect, who had previously designed the gardens for the reconstructed Tryon Palace. Present just beneath the surface were the brick and ballast stone foundations for the walls of the nave as well as the semicircular apse at the east end of the church and the entrance tower at the west end.  Eventually the foundations would be built over to create an outdoor chapel, dedicated in 1967.  Low brick walls delineate the outline and thickness of the walls as well as the placement of door and window openings.

Christ Church Communion Silver, from Emma H. Powell, New Bern, North Carolina, founded by De Graffenried in 1710, (New Bern, 1905)

Although the first Christ Church disappeared nearly two centuries ago some some relics of the long-lost church do survive, most notable its handsome communion silver.  Crafted by London silversmith Mordecai Fox in 1752 and bearing the royal crest on each piece, it is said to have been presented to the parish by George II.  An incredibly rare survival is the 18th century wooden storage and carrying case lined and fitted to hold the five-piece service.  Also surviving are a Bible published in 1717 and a prayer book printed in 1752, both bearing the royal arms on their covers.

Little else remains today of the first Christ Church aside from its foundations, now buried beneath the outdoor chapel, and the few 18th-century gravestones scattered across the churchyard.

Note: The lines of poetry which open this post are from a long, satirical poem by Stephen Chester published in the Newbern Sentinel, on October 17, 1818. In this poem, Chester, New Bern merchant and member of the firm of Devereaux, Chester, and Orme, humorously describes the various public buildings, churches, and notable features of the town including the original Christ Church ("A Church of George the 2d's reign").