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Old St. Mary's Church



FOR ALMOST THREE CENTURIES, historic Old St. Mary’s Church has stood quietly on the corner of Wood and Broad Streets in Burlington, serving as a symbol of the faith of early colonists and a reminder of the legacies which those colonists produced. St. Mary’s Parish, founded as a mission of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) in 1702, and is considered the oldest continuously active Episcopal parish in the state and the Mother Parish of the Diocese of New Jersey. (>read more)


The "Old Church" was originally a small, plain brick structure measuring 22 feet by 33 feet. Its main door opened onto West Broad Street. Although Talbot had laid the cornerstone on March 25, 1703, the building was not reasonably completed until 1705. The first services in the church, however, were held on August 22, 1703 when George Keith, a converted Quaker, preached before the governor and other guests. The communion table was located in the chancel at the east end and a small gallery was at the west of the rectangular structure. The pulpit was along the north wall by the chancel. Box pews lined the walls and were in the center of the church. The governor’s pew was on the southeast corner nearest the chancel.


In 1769, the church was extensively renovated, probably under the direction of the noted Quaker architect-master carpenter Robert Smith of Philadelphia. The building was enlarged to dimensions of 63 feet by 33 feet. A new west gallery was added, a belfry constructed, and the entrance moved to the west end. At that time, Governor and Mrs. Franklin donated "very rich and elegant furniture for the pulpit, desk, and table." The 1769 bell hangs in the present belfry.


The next modifications to the church were undertaken in 1810-11 by the noted architect Robert Mills of South Carolina. Mills, working with Samuel Gillis, a carpenter, added the five-sided apse to the east end of the church and extensively remodeled the interior. To accommodate the growing parish, Isaac Holden of Philadelphia planned two additions, one on the south and one on the north, to the existing building in 1834-35. These additions gave the church a cruciform-shape. The interior was again rearranged and the pulpit, altar, baptismal font, and reading desk were placed to the south. The exterior was stuccoes to give it a uniform appearance.


The final, and present, arrangement of the church was completed in 1875 when the building was "restored" for use by the parish Sunday School. While New St. Mary’s Church was restored (1976-79) following a disastrous fire, the Old Church was again used for worship. St. Mary’s Parish has preserved and restored this National Landmark structure in time for its three-hundredth anniversary in 2002.


St. Mary’s Parish, sometimes referred to as St. Anne’s in the earliest church records, was an important cultural and social institution as well as a religious one. The rectors of the Parish have been important community leaders. They used the pulpit as much for political and social commentary as for spiritual guidance. As the representative of the established church in the provincial capital of West New Jersey, St. Mary’s was the place of worship for many of Burlington’s leading citizens, including the resident Anglican governors. During the American Revolution, many of St. Mary’s parishioners, including Governor William Franklin and Mayor John Lawrence sided with their king and their rector, the staunch Loyalist Jonathan Odell. Yet, a few like Bowes Reed, Joseph Bloomfield, and Charles Read, pledged themselves to the cause of independence. Under the leadership of Dr. Charles Henry Wharton and George Washington Doane, St. Mary’s continued to be an important educational, religious, and social entity into the nineteenth century. Wharton served concurrently as rector and president of Columbia University while Doane started the prestigious St. Mary’s Hall for girls (1837), later followed by Burlington College for young men (1846).


The architectural history of Old St. Mary's Church was prepared by Lawrence R. Schmidt.