A Student of History

January 30, 2007

Digging in Va. for the 17th Century

Filed under: Historic Preservation — John Maass @ 5:18 pm

In Isle of Wight Couunty, Va., “A Smithsonian Institution scientist shrugged off claustrophobic working conditions Monday to recover the remains of a late-1600s skeleton buried under the floor of America’s oldest standing English church.” 

Historic St. Luke

Here, there is an article on the details and a few photos as well.  The colonist in question is/was Joseph Bridger–one of the 10 wealthiest men in the colony, and richest landholder south of the James River.

Bridger paid for St. Luke’s well-appointed interior woodwork and the third floor of its distinctive bell tower. His generosity is still remembered by a late Victorian stained-glass window installed above the altar space of the church.

But it wasn’t until more than 60 of his descendants began talking about organizing an archaeological study of Whitemarsh – the old family property located about two miles from the church – that Williamsburg-based archaeologist Merry Outlaw saw the potential for adding her prominent ancestor to Owsley’s study.

From the church’s website is some history of the building and parish (although the part about Jefferson kneeling down to worship there may raise an eyebrow):

Venerable Historic St. Luke’s, Mother Church of Warrosquyoake County (later called Isle of Wight) was affectionately known as “Old Brick Church” long before it was given its present name in 1820. It is the oldest existing church of English foundation in America and the nation’s only surviving Gothic building. It forms a unique bridge between the early civilization of our country and the rich culture of Medieval England. Its structure reflects the architectural and spiritual descendents of the great Gothic cathedrals of England.

By tradition and recollection of the first Vestry Book, “Old Brick Church” is dated to 1632. It closely relates to the Tower Church at Jamestown, dated circa 1638/39. As was common at the time, it took four or five years to erect such a church; and the finishing of the interior fittings required an additional number of years, even in this parish, already numbering 522 persons in the year 1634.

In 1640, John Day (direct ancestor of Henry Mason Day, the first President of the foundation) came from England with his own fine household furniture and personal servants.

Colonel Joseph Bridger of “White Marsh” long associated with “Old Brick Church”, a man of significant wealth, and a member of the Council of State to Charles II for Virginia, is known to have settled in the parish at least as early as 1657.

According to tradition, Colonel Bridger brought members of the Driver family from England to do “finish” work on the church. Colonel Bridger was given increasing acknowledgement for the important contributions he made in bringing the church to completion. His remains, relocated to the church in the 1890’s, are in the church’s chancel marked by a marble ledgerstone. By the Order of Assembly issued in March 1623, this parish was one of only four locations, other than Jamestown, where the General Court of the Colony was permitted to convene. Since the Court convened in the church, there was urgency to make it suitably reflect this important function. The “Lord Governour and Captaine Generall” would be present and during their stay attend church service. The high box-pews were designated for their use.

Those who first assembled in “Old Brick Church” knew much of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, John Rolfe and Powhatan, who were still regarded as contemporary figures, and the tragic Indian Massacre of 1622, which wiped out nearly a third of the Virginia settlers. Nathaniel Bacon, the scourge of Governor Berkeley, passed not far from “Old Brick Church” on his way to burn Jamestown in 1676.

In the stirring days before the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and many other of our great patriots must have knelt here before the altar and asked for guidance on their passage to or from Williamsburg, as they slowly shaped the destiny of a nation.

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