Little Church with a Big Heart Holds Three-Day Celebration for 175th Anniversary

Jun 17, 2024 | Stories from the Diocese

Despite a devastating December 2023 fire that destroyed its 19th-century building, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oak Grove, Virginia, recently marked its 175th anniversary with a three-day celebration.

The Very Rev. Rodney E. Gordon, rector of St. Peter’s, said he decided the events had to be held at St. Peter’s despite the fire that destroyed the church and damaged other facilities.

“I felt it was important for us to be present in that sacred space on that ground especially during this time in celebration of our 175th anniversary of ministry in Oak Grove,” Gordon said.

So, several parishioners erected a large event tent on the Saint Peter’s Green for worship services and events that began on Friday, May 31, and continued on Saturday and Sunday.

The three days’ events were moving beyond words, Gordon said. “I mean words really don’t describe all of the wonderful things that happened.”

On Friday, May 31, 2024, St. Peter’s held a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the church’s new Washington Parish Museum, the restored study of The Rev. Latane who was St. Peter’s rector in the late 19th Century.

Melissa Coburn, Superintendent of the George Washington National Monument, and Stevenson Walker, of the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, attended the ceremony and offered greetings. Gordon, Bill Doerken, Museum Director, Scott Mitchell, St. Peter’s Senior Warden,  and children of the parish helped cut the ribbon on the museum at the event. Learn more about the history of St. Peter’s.

Afterward, people gathered under a tent on St. Peter’s Green for Evening Prayer to mark the day in 1849 that Bishop John Johns consecrated St. Peter’s Church.

In another nod to history, Gordon invited former rector The Rev. Tim Steeves to preach during the service.

On Saturday, St. Peter’s held a service to acknowledge and reconcile the church’s past complicity with displacement of native Americans and with slavery and racism, Gordon said.

“I believe that we should actually acknowledge and speak truth in what we know so far about what our past has been and how we were,” Gordon said.

Gordon said that starting more than one year ago he began collecting information on the parish’s history. His conclusion. “St. Peter’s, was complicit in racism and slavery.”

Gordon said he worked with two university archaeologists, one of whom specializes in Indigenous people.

They discovered that the original parish where St. Peter’s in what is now Westmoreland County was founded in 1653 as Appomattox Parish. It was renamed Washington Parish in 1664 in honor of John Washington, George Washington’s great-grandfather.

They were also able to confirm that St. Peter’s church building stands on the ancestral unceded land of the Pissaseck Indians. “So, we held a service of acknowledgment and healing based on a land acknowledgment that was adopted by our Vestry in February,” Gordon said.

Although the Pissaseck Indian tribe no longer exists, it is believed that members of the tribe were dispersed and were welcomed into the Rappahannock and Nanzatico tribes.

“So, we were fortunate to have Mr. Kirk Richardson, a member, Rappahannock Tribal Council and co-chair of the Native American / Indigenous Ministries Team in the Diocese of Virginia at the service,” Gordon said.

The service included a reading of the Land Acknowledgment and the traditional Native American Seven Directions prayer led by Richardson.

“Outside, under the tent, there was a moment of reconciliation and healing. All of our ancestors were there with us. The communion of saints was with us in that moment in time as we spoke the words, prayed the litany, spoke the acknowledgment. As we asked for forgiveness and admitted our complicity in what we had done to not only our Native American siblings, but also our Black siblings,” Gordon said.

The Rev. Canon Dr. J. Lee Hill, Jr., Canon for Racial Justice and Healing in The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, preached at the service.

“Then we celebrated the Eucharist followed by a wonderful parish picnic on the green,” Gordon said. “And then on Sunday – Sunday, Sunday, Sunday – we had our bishop, [The Rt. Rev. E.] Mark Stevenson with us. We had baptism, we had confirmations, receptions, reaffirmations and had over 73 people for that service and a beautiful reception there on the green.

“It was just a real joyful hopeful event.

“And what I admire about our bishop is we had the fire on December 19th and on December 24th he was with us as the celebrant and preacher at St. Mary’s. In fact, he was with us on the day of the fire.

“What he did was link those two experiences with the lessons appointed for that fourth Sunday of Advent and for this Sunday. To commemorate the day, we commissioned a local artisan to build a new outdoor altar for use at services on the green and Bishop Stevenson consecrated and dedicated that altar during the service. It was just very moving,” Gordon said.

From Bishop Stevenson’s sermon:

When I was here on the fourth Sunday of Advent six months ago, I spoke with you all about dreams and about stories. I reminded us of the uniqueness of your story, all of our own individual stories, that there’s a uniqueness to our story and yet there’s also a connection that we have with others through our story and how our story connects with other’s dreams. I spoke that day of the events that had occurred over time in the building here right behind y’all, that building that had, just at that point, recently burned. I spoke to you about the events that would occur in the newness of what was to come, and through it all, I spoke about how important this community is, how important this community was, how important this community shall be, how important you all are to each other, and how important you all are to God. For God loves you fiercely. In God’s eyes, you are the greatest in the world.

The property adjacent to St. Peter’s parking lot used to accommodate the activities was purchased four years ago.

“One Sunday about four years ago I came to church and there was this big yellow public auction sign in front of the property. I came into church before the service started and said, ‘God has told me that we need to buy that property because we need it for future ministry.’ ”

The 1.9-acre property now encompasses a trail of trees that allows walkers to explore the natural beauty of the area while learning about the significance of its trees in both the Bible and American history.

Other plans for the greenspace include a labyrinth to be constructed by the congregation using bricks from the burned church. The blessed altar hangings, vestments and Gordon’s prayer book, ruined by smoke, water, and heat damage will be interred under the Labyrinth’s brick pathway.

“We’re going to dig down 18 inches and take my vestments, all of the altar hangings and other clergy vestments that had been blessed, and place them in the ground,” he said. “And we will bury my prayer book given to me at my ordination in 1992 in the center of the labyrinth.”

Another plan for St. Peter’s Green includes a permanent year-round multipurpose pavilion with doors that can be opened or closed based on the weather, Gordon said.

The pavilion will connect to the church’s newly constructed kitchen on the green for community meals, worship services, and community activities.

“We know that God will be calling us into new ministry opportunities with this particular building. Everything from worship, a farmer’s market for the community, festivals of some sort, or classes for the community,” Gordon said.

“Since we are currently working with a contractor, a civil engineer and an architect in rebuilding our Church building and Parish House, it just makes good sense to start talking about a pavilion and planning it now, right?

“We don’t know how God is going to pay for it, but we are hopeful the funding will be available for us somehow. We’re doing this to be faithful to what we feel God is calling us to with this ministry of hospitality,” Gordon said.

Learn more about St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.