A History of Wye Parish

Anglican CrestThe history of Wye Parish is best understood by starting with the formal creation of Anglican parishes in Maryland in 1692.  The Church of England had, of course, come to the Chesapeake region much earlier: in 1607, the first Morning and Evening prayer services in the New World were held at Jamestown under an old sail stretched between trees.  By later in the century, there were, alongside dissenting Protestant and Roman Catholic houses of worship, some fifteen or twenty Anglican churches in Maryland, operating loosely under the distant jurisdiction of the Bishop of London and mostly served by lay readers rather than ordained clergy.  At the end of the century, however, all this dramatically changed.

The Church of England Established in Maryland

In 1688 the Catholic monarch of England, James II, was ousted in favor of his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange.  England’s “Glorious Revolution” immediately provoked a counterpart revolution in Lord Baltimore’s proprietary colony of Maryland.  In 1689, the “Protestant Association” of major Maryland landowners stormed the capital at St. Mary’s City, took over the government, and appealed to William and Mary to convert Maryland into a royal colony and establish the Church of England.

The new monarchs responded affirmatively, sending over a royal governor with special instructions for advancing the Church of England in the colony.  By 1692, the Maryland General Assembly had passed the first in a series of enactments making the Church of England the official religion of Maryland.  The colony’s ten counties were divided into 30 parishes, and the established churches and their clergy were funded by taxes on individuals (40 pounds of tobacco annually, collected by the sheriff and paid over to the vestries) and by the provision of “glebe” lands (to be farmed or rented out by clergy to cover living expenses).  Of the 30 original parishes laid out in 1692, thirteen of these were on the Eastern Shore, and one of them was St. Paul’s Parish, with its principal church near what is now Centreville.

St. Paul’s Chapel-of-Ease on the Wye

St. Paul’s Parish, which was quite large (some 500 square miles), included at the time of its establishment three “chapels-of-ease” – the name traditionally given to church buildings constructed for the convenience of parishioners too remote to travel easily to the parish church.  One of the chapels-of-ease for St. Paul’s was “St. Luke’s Chapel, Wye”, located at the (then) head of navigation of the Wye River.  It had evidently been there for some time.  When in 1717 the St. Paul’s vestry contracted for the building of a replacement for it, the structure that we today call Old Wye Church, their agreement with the builder specified that the new church was to be built “either where the old church stands or hard by the same”.

St. Paul's Chapel-of-Ease on the WyeJust how old was the “old church” that in 1717 stood on the Wye and was about to be replaced?  We do not know, but plausible speculation pushes its origin back towards the middle of the preceding century.  After all, William Claiborne and other settlers from Virginia were on Kent Island with a priest of the Church of England in 1631, and a church was there well before 1650.  By the 1650’s there were English settlers on the River Wye (and other navigable waterways north and south).  The first St. Paul’s church, known as Chester Church, was a wooden structure erected near the head of the Corsica before 1660.  There was a grist mill nearby on the Wye in 1668, and by 1698 St. Paul’s chapel-of-ease on the Wye was old enough to need either repairing or rebuilding – something the vestry discussed in November of that year but, for nearly twenty years, did not pursue.

The New Old Wye Church

In any case, St. Paul’s vestry records tell us that beginning in 1717 the building of the new Wye Chapel was for several years the most important activity in the parish.  Moneys for the church building itself – walls and roof, plus communion table and pulpit — could come from the aforementioned taxes, but by order of the Governor and Council, the pews and all the other interior finishing of the established churches had to be funded by the parishioners themselves.  Accordingly, pews in the new church were auctioned off, gifts and pledges were sought, with tobacco the principal medium of exchange:  it was a lengthy process in which the actual collection of promised support often proved difficult.  Finally, some four years later, St. Luke’s Chapel, Wye, the church we know today simply as “Old Wye”, was opened on October 18, 1721 – the Feast Day of St. Luke the Evangelist in the liturgical calendar of the Church of England.

For the next half century, Old Wye and St. Paul’s Parish prospered greatly.  Tobacco exports to England from the Eastern Shore reached their peak in the 1740’s, while wheat was being successfully introduced (and exported) as a second major crop.  Household income more than tripled during this period, as did the population.  Before long Old Wye was unable comfortably to accommodate its ever-growing congregation.  In 1765, the St. Paul’s vestry bemoaned the fact that its Wye Chapel was “so small and incommodious that near one half of the Inhabitants in this part of the said Parish are without Seats . . . to attend Divine Worship therein”.  Plans were made and funds were sought for an expansion of Old Wye that would “take down the South side Wall, and add sixteen feet in the clear in the Width, and . . . make two Galleries in the West End”.  But the project was first postponed and then abandoned (although a single gallery ultimately did get added, in 1792).  Once again, dramatic change was at hand: the American Revolution.

The Church of England Displaced

In 1776, England, trading partner of Maryland and protector of its established Church, became the enemy.  In only a few years, the English Church in America would reorganize itself as the Protestant Episcopal Church, revising the Book of Common Prayer in 1789 to substitute new civil rulers for whom prayers would be offered but stating firmly that “this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship”.  St. Paul’s Parish and Old Wye participated fully in this process: indeed, the very name of the reorganized church was first adopted at a 1780 Chestertown convocation of Eastern Shore clergy and laity attended by representatives from St. Paul’s Parish.

But the Revolution and its aftermath nevertheless dealt a grievous blow to St. Paul’s and its chapel-of-ease on the Wye.  The new principle of separation of church and state deprived the established churches of taxpayer financial support (they were, however, allowed to retain their buildings and glebe lands); clergy and lay persons loyal to England departed in large numbers; and economic conditions deteriorated as once-thriving trade was disrupted and once-fertile soils finally became overworked.  Many Eastern Shore families abandoned their worn-out tobacco farms and migrated westward into the Piedmont.

By 1810, St. Paul’s Parish was, physically and spiritually, at a low ebb.  In the space of 20 years, it had had six different rectors.  After 1810, lay readers carried most of the burden of such services as were held in the decaying buildings of St. Paul’s and Old Wye.  By 1820, St. Paul’s was nearly in ruins, partially blocked off and used for a diminished congregation said to number only fourteen communicants.  In the 1830’s, all services ceased at Old Wye, and soon the chapel, almost fallen down, was being used as a stable for cattle.

St. Luke’s, Queenstown

St. Lukes Queenstown 1800sYet signs of renewed life soon began to appear.  In 1835 St. Paul’s, having torn down its church building outside of Centreville, consecrated a new structure inside the town boundaries.  The St. Paul’s Parish vestry, contemplating the situation at Old Wye, concluded that it would be wiser and less costly to build another chapel-of-ease nearer a population center than attempt to repair the sadly-deteriorated Old Wye.  Accordingly, they organized the construction in Queenstown, on land donated by the owners of the nearby Bowlingly plantation, of “a very neat and commodious frame edifice” – consecrated in 1842 as “St. Luke’s Chapel, Queenstown”.  The decision to build this new chapel proved to be, as we shall see, a turning point in Wye history.

Some years after St Luke’s in Queenstown was built, the Bishop of Maryland, on a visitation from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore, chanced by Old Wye and saw the sorry state it was in.  In response to his urgings, the St. Paul’s vestry launched a fund-raising effort to repair their ruined chapel-of-ease on the Wye.  As a result, in 1854 the Bishop was able to consecrate a rehabilitated “St. Luke’s, Wye” with a slate roof, stained-glass windows, and other furnishings in the Victorian style of the time.

Wye Parish is Born

St. Paul’s, which in the previous century had spun off its other chapels-of-ease into separate parishes of their own, now turned to the question of the future status of its two remaining chapels, the new one in Queenstown and the restored one on the Wye: should they too be set up as a separate parish?  The time for division again seemed ripe, as St. Paul’s had grown strongly since its low ebb, increasing the number of its communicants to just shy of one hundred souls.

With the support of the congregants who would be in the new parish if it were formed, the decision to  create “Wye Parish” was made by the St. Paul’s vestry and in 1859 approved by the Diocesan Convention.  The first rector of Wye Parish, the Rev. Mr. Erastus F. Dashiell, previously rector of St. Paul’s (which he continued to serve for another two years), reported to the Convention that the Wye Parishioners would “start with two Churches in good repair, a subscription of about $1800 towards a Parsonage and small glebe land, and a guaranteed salary of about $550 or $600; which, for a new Parish, we consider favorable auspices”.  The parsonage (rectory) was in fact promptly built, and Mr. Dashiell and his family moved in by Christmas of 1860.

War and Recovery

Within only a few months of the happy birth of Wye Parish, Fort Sumter was fired on and the congregations at Queenstown and Wye were put to the test of Civil War.  Economic disruption, along with drought and financial panics, plagued the Eastern Shore for years afterward.  In the Eastern Shore’s Diocese of Easton, created out of the Diocese of Maryland in 1868 after nearly three decades of debate and deliberation, half of the parishes had fewer than 50 communicants; the total for the whole diocese was only 1,357.

But by the later 19th century better times were on the way.  The Eastern Shore’s primarily agricultural economy revived, as fruit and vegetable production expanded and railroads enabled Shore producers to reach more distant markets.  The number of communicants in the Diocese more than doubled, and  congregations began once again to have the wherewithal to meet parish needs.  In 1890, Wye Parish was able to swiftly rebuild and enhance St. Luke’s, Queenstown after a fire in the sanctuary.  Significantly, in 1896, when the rectory at Old Wye burned down, it was not re-built: the rectors of Wye Parish had for some time been living in Queenstown, and the Old Wye rectory had been rented out to other tenants.  The center of gravity of Wye Parish was in Queenstown, and had been ever since the construction there of the “very neat and commodious frame” chapel in 1842.

Old Wye: Decline and Rescue

Old Wye: Decline and RescueFor the first several decades of the 20th century, the fortunes of Old Wye steadily worsened, reflecting general conditions in the Diocese of Easton.  The number of communicants was once again in decline; clergy numbers dropped as did the funds available to pay them; every town on the Eastern Shore, with the sole exception of Salisbury, was stagnating or declining in population.  In these circumstances, there were after 1910 only infrequent services at Old Wye, though its history and beauty continued to be cherished.  At a special “Old Homecoming” service there in 1930, a parishioner delivered a talk in which he observed that “Old Wye Church is very lovely and possesses a simple beauty of its own which has appealed to many generations of its congregation”.

While repairs had been made in 1923 to the interior of Old Wye, nothing had been done to arrest the accumulating damage to its exterior walls, which were bulging out and ready to fall under the weight of the 1854 slate roof (it should have been wood shingles).  In this perilous condition, and changed in too many particulars from its original 1721 design, rarely-used Old Wye was more than ready for the providential intervention in 1947 of Mr. Arthur A. Houghton, Jr.  Inspired by his involvement with the great project in Williamsburg, Mr. Houghton proposed, funded, directed, and ultimately completed, not only the total restoration of the church and reconstruction of the long-vanished vestry house of 1763, but also the new construction of a rectory and a large parish hall with library, office spaces and kitchen.

St. Luke’s, Queenstown:  Decline and Renewal

St. Luke’s, Queenstown: Decline and RenewalOld Wye’s miraculous recovery and enhancement had, however, unintended consequences in the ensuing years.  Queenstown’s historian, writing in 1985, records that “many of the parishioners from Queenstown then began to worship at Old Wye, leaving their little home church of St. Luke’s to a very small number of  worshippers. . . .  [T]he congregation became so small at St. Luke’s [four in number, according to a contemporary news account] that it is increasingly difficult to justify its continuance.”  Indeed, St. Luke’s by this time was open only in the summer, and its congregation had largely dispersed, if not to Old Wye, then to St. Paul’s in Centreville.

But instead of being closed down, St. Luke’s unexpectedly began to gain support.  A new rector of Wye Parish started holding regular services there, and a group of parishioners started a fund-raising campaign for a parish hall.  Mr. Houghton came forward yet again to support the effort.  By 1989 St. Luke’s had a parish hall, not so large as the Old Wye parish hall but perfectly suited to the scale and style of the chapel to which it connected.  The congregation were furnished with an ample meeting room, offices, nursery, kitchen, lavatories, and storage space.  Now the tables were turned: it was at St. Luke’s that attendance was growing, while attendance at Old Wye was dwindling to a handful.

The underlying and unsolved problem was, of course, the very small number of Episcopalians in the immediate area of Wye Parish – perhaps enough for one church but certainly not for two.  A solution to the problem was ultimately found during the ministry of Wye Parish’s current and longest-serving rector, the Very Rev. Charles E. Osberger, who, having helped rescue St. Luke’s when he first arrived, has over time enabled Wye Parish to become a single congregation with, in effect, two co-equal chapels-of-ease.

Wye Parish Today

Wye Parish today.Under the leadership of “Reverend Charlie”, special all-Parish services take place at regular intervals at both churches, and the same choir and lay readers serve both churches.  Parish outreach (such as support for the Haven Ministries mission to the homeless) and Parish programs (such as the Rector’s Kerygma Bible study course) engage parishioners without regard to which church they usually attend on Sunday.  The same dynamic is at work in Parish events for the larger community.  Thus, for example, while the long-running annual Christmas Bazaar (in its 57th year) is at Old Wye and the younger Books Café (in its 18th year) is at St. Luke’s, at either event there are as many volunteering parishioners who attend the other church on Sunday as there are who attend the church where the event is held.  And more and more, the programs and events of Wye Parish have come to involve members of the community from other churches, or from none.

Today Wye Parish enjoys a united, welcoming congregation in which nearly everyone knows everyone else, and neither church functions at the expense of the other.  But Wye Parish is still the same small parish that long has labored, not always successfully, to carry the financial burden of properly maintaining two historic properties.  That burden was considerably lightened in 2018 by an unanticipated legacy establishing a substantial  endowment fund dedicated to preserving and enhancing the buildings and grounds of Old Wye.  Charles Stephens, creator of the fund with his wife Roberta, knew the need only too well: he had once served the Parish as its “junior warden” — in the Episcopal Church, that is the vestry officer responsible for the upkeep of the parish buildings and grounds.

Once again refreshed by a providential act of generosity, today Wye Parish perseveres in its mission, now centuries-old, of opening the Way into life through  scripture, tradition, and reason – the good gifts from God at the heart of Anglican Christianity.

Select Bibliography

  • Frederic Emory, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland: Its Early History and Development [orig. pub. 1886-7] (Queenstown, MD: Queen Anne Press, 1981)
  • Elizabeth Merritt, Old Wye Church, Talbot County, Maryland, 1694-1954 (Baltimore, MD: Maryland Historical Society, 1954)
  • Arthur Pierce Middleton, Tercentenary Essays Commemorating Anglican Maryland, 1692-1792 (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company, 1992)
  • Harry C. Rhodes, Queenstown: The Social History of a Small American Town (Queenstown, MD: Queen Anne Press, 1985)