St. Stephen's Episcopal Church is located on US Route 360 in the town of Heathsville, Northumberland County, VA. Consecrated in 1881, the church is a delightful example of the Gothic style adapted to a rural parish edifice.
The original St. Stephen's Parish was formed in 1698 by combining Bowtracy and Fairfield parishes. Fairfield, earlier known as Chickacoan Parish, embraced the area to the north of the Wicomico River, dated from 1648.
St. Stephen's was represented in the first convention of the Episcopal Church of Virginia in 1785, and the parish sent representatives to the Council Conventions intermittently until 1799. The parish declined following the disestablishment. Writing in 1857, Bishop Meade noted that there was no active Episcopal church or parish in Northumberland County.
A renewed interest in an Episcopal Church for Northumberland prompted the purchase of land in 1874 for the purpose of "erecting a house of divine worship."' Former Rector, John H. Parke, has recorded the early history of the present building. The Rev. Mr. Parke writes:
“The guiding spirits for securing an architect and for raising funds for construction of the new church building were Dr. and Mrs. James Smith who lived in the nearby beautiful estate, Mantua. Mrs. Alice Kay Smith, serving as agent for the trustees, left a meticulous accounting of money received from pledges, subscriptions, fairs , concerts, oyster roasts, tableaux, fish fries, and sales of candy, strawberries, and whatever else the members of the parish could lay their hands on, for a total of $2373.64, which presumably covered the cost of the present building. Expenditures were also carefully recorded for architect's fees, stained glass, lumber, fine millwork, lighting fixtures, shingles, tie-rods, bricks, supplies for various entertainments, even a donkey and saddle for one of the many fairs . All shipments from Baltimore were by steamer to the landing at Mantua in Dr. Smith's care. Few of the supplies were available in the Northern Neck, and Richmond, beyond the Rappahannock, was as remote as the moon! Thanks to steamers plying the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, Baltimore was far more accessible than any other city.”
Although the corner stone gives Emmanuel Church as the original name, when the building was completed its name was St Stephen's. It was formally consecrated on April 30, 1881 by the Rt. Rev. Francis M. Whittle, Bishop of Virginia, assisted by the Rev. Messrs. Tucker, Derby, and E. Meade.
In St. Stephen's most recent history, the parish endured a split with the Anglican Church due to disagreements with the direction of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the National Episcopal Church. Those parishioners who were dedicated to the mission of the Episcopal Church continued to gather and took legal action to regain possession of the church grounds and building. In 2012, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church won its court case and has been gathering here ever since. In 2020, the sanctuary was updated to reflect a style more true to the original architecture.
Presently, our community is continuing to find new ways to seek and serve God in our wider community. We are dedicated to being the body of Christ in the world through our outreach efforts, our inclusion of all people, and our welcoming of newcomers.
We are dedicated to adapting to a changing world and culture. In a time where the world is busier than ever, we strive to not only make worship accessible, but also to make our community a place where you can become intimately connected with God in the chaos of life, ask questions, and grow in faith. We strive to continue to be a place of inclusion, welcome young families and children, and offer community support through our parish outreach.
The wood-frame building is a rectangular, one-story, gable-roof structure covered with board-and-batten siding.
The main (West) elevation is dominated by a one-story porch which consists of paired square columns supporting a steeply pitched roof capped by a cross. The porch is distinguished by an inset Gothic arch with sharp trefoils. An iron railing on the steps constitutes a later addition. The porch shelters a double doorway with its original herringbone-pattern paneled doors set in a simple frame. The doorway has stained-glass quatrefoils set within a pointed arch.
The porch is flanked by narrow, pointed stained-glass windows. A stained-glass rose window is in the gable. A cross marks the apex of the roof. The gable is ornamented with a braced finial and pendants.
The north and south elevations consist of four bays. Each bay contains a pointed window with stained glass.
The east elevation is dominated by a rectangular apse. The apse is lighted by three pointed windows, the center one taller and wider than the side windows. An exterior brick chimney breaks the elevation's roof line. To the side of the apse is a small vestry.
The plan of the church consists of a nave with a vestibule to the west. The sanctuary is set within a pointed-arch recess formally separated from the nave by a wooden communion rail. The altar’s reredos (altarpiece), pulpit and lectern were the work of Clem Goodman, a parishioner. The pews are original to the church.
The original church bell was located to the east of the building, and was replaced in 2006. The cemetery, a later addition, occupies the rear lawn. Consecrated in 1881, St. Stephen’s Church ranks among Virginia’s best examples of the wooden Gothic or "Carpenters Gothic" style popular throughout America in the mid-19th century. The building is also evidence of rural Virginia's architectural conservatism: such churches in northern states usually date closer to 1852, when the prominent church architect Richard Upjohn popularized the style with his designs for picturesque wooden churches in his book Rural Architecture.
Parish records list St. Stephen's architect as one T. Buckler Ghequiere. Whether the architect or the parishioners were instrumental in the choice of style, this remote Northern Neck church illustrates the continued interest of the Anglican community in having its houses of worship, however modest, adorned with accurately interpreted and handsomely crafted Gothic forms. This interest was fostered by the ecclesiological movements earlier in the century, which stressed the use of Gothic style to emphasize Anglicanism's roots in the Medieval church.