Even though St. Thomas’s observes 1842 as its founding year, the story really begins in 1835, when the Rev. George Allen, an Episcopal priest, came to the village of Newark to teach classics at Delaware College. He occasionally held services in the University of Delaware building now known as Old College, for the nearest Episcopal church was St. James, Mill Creek, eight miles away.
By 1842 Allen and a group of people—the first saints of St. Thomas’s—decided that is was time to form an Episcopal church in Newark, to join the Methodist and Presbyterian congregations already present in town.
The next step was to build a church–but what sort of building? Some would have been content with a very simple structure, but George Allen had other ideas. This is where the story, and the original St. Thomas’s, at the corner of Delaware Avenue and South Main Street, become interesting.
For many years the Episcopal church had emphasized the Protestant side of the Anglican tradition—church buildings and worship were simple and restrained. But beginning in the 1830s some clergy and laypeople, first in England and then in the United States, wanted to revitalize the church by reviving its pre-Reformation heritage with more color, more ceremony, more music, and a greater appeal to the senses. This is known as the Oxford or Tractarian movement. For church buildings, this meant reviving the Gothic style of architecture. There was great debate over these new ideas, for they went to the core of what it meant to be Anglican or Episcopalian. Delaware’s bishop, the Rt. Rev. Alfred Lee, did not approve of the new ideas.
But George Allen and several members of the vestry did support the new ideas, and they wanted their new church building to reflect them. Allen contacted his mentor, the bishop of Maryland, who connected him with Richard Upjohn, a leading architect of the Gothic revival. Upjohn, who designed Trinity Church in New York, provided a drawing of a simple Gothic-style church that would meet the needs of a small congregation in a small town. He did this at no charge to St. Thomas’s, so the design was a great gift to the infant parish.
There was some discussion over which plan to build—Upjohn’s design or a simpler building– but George Allen and his supporters prevailed, and the first portion of the church was erected and consecrated in 1845. It stands today, not in its original use, but beautifully restored. It is an early example of Gothic revival architecture and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The first saints of St. Thomas’s created a structure that served the congregation for over a century and still serves the University of Delaware as Bayard Sharp Hall.
2. Growing into God’s kingdom
As Christians, we believe that each and every human being is made in God’s image, and that there are no distinctions between people. Each week in our worship services, we see the great variety of people that God has created, all contributing to making St. Thomas’s the house of faith that it is today.
However, all people live in time and place and culture—which often have not reflected God’s desire for God’s people. Such was the case in Newark, Delaware, in the 1840s. At that time, white men controlled American society. Women had no leadership role, although they participated in various ways. African Americans were expected to be subordinate, and slavery was legal in Delaware. And, family was understood to be father, mother, and children who were seen but not heard. The founders of St. Thomas’s were no better, and no worse, than other people of their time.
Some of St. Thomas’s founders owned slaves. When the church was first built, the gallery was reserved for African Americans, whether free or enslaved, and the seating was not as nice as it was downstairs. St. Thomas’s practiced the segregation that was the custom of the times in Delaware. As times have changed, the parish has increased considerably in diversity, welcoming African Americans and people from many ethnic backgrounds as brothers and sisters in the fellowship, faith, and practice of the church.
For many years, women played a supporting, but subordinate, role in the church. They taught Sunday school, raised funds, cooked food, and did good works. As time went on, they took on higher levels of responsibility, but it took many more years for them to reach the top levels of parish leadership. Women began to serve on vestries in Delaware shortly after World War II. St. Thomas’s elected its first female vestry member in the late 1950s. Women and girls also did not serve as acolytes or lay readers until fairly recently—their only liturgical participation was through the altar guild or choir. The struggle for ordination took even longer. The first women priests in the Episcopal Church were ordained at an “illegal” ceremony in 1974, and the church formally allowed women priests in 1976.
Similarly, our understanding of family has grown, especially in recent years. Today St. Thomas’s includes traditional families of mother, father, and children as well as single-parent families, same-sex couples, single people of all ages, and everything in between.
St. Thomas’s is growing as a diverse congregation that welcomes all to worship and serve. May we continue to grow into a true reflection of God’s kingdom.
3. St. Thomas’s has always been a church that has ministered to both town and gown.
St. Thomas’s has always had a close relationship with the University of Delaware, founded as Delaware College. College students (all male) were part of the procession at the cornerstone laying in 1843. In 1844, the vestry stressed the importance of meeting the spiritual needs of students. Members of the school’s faculty and administration have served the parish in many ways. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Dr. Walter Hullihen was president of the university and was also active at St. Thomas’s. Many faculty were also members. Between them, they steered many students to the church. But the pace and success of college work varied over time. Until the late 1950s, the rector served as the Episcopal chaplain to the university and St. Thomas’s had full responsibility for funding and carrying out any work with students.
St. Thomas’s has always been a family church for the people of Newark. By the mid 1850s the congregation had outgrown the original building, but the needed expansion did not take place until after the Civil War. In 1866, the church was enlarged with a new chancel, robing room, vestibule, and tower—taking the form that it still has today. Twenty new pews were added to accommodate the growing congregation. Another expansion took place in 1890 when a parish house was built on the property—it could hold 50 people.
By the late 1930s, the diocese came to realize that St. Thomas’s location, facilities, and ministry to the university were not as effective as they could be, and that leads to the next chapter in the story.
4. Making the Move
In 1939 Bishop Arthur McKinstry commissioned a survey of the diocese’s needs and opportunities. One recommendation was that St. Thomas’s be relocated closer to the university, which was developing down South College Avenue, so that it could more effectively minister to students. Nothing changed immediately, thanks to World War II.
The issue was raised again in the late 1940s. In 1947 Bishop McKinstry declared that the church as a whole had neglected students and appointed committee to determine what should be done. Meanwhile St. Thomas’s rector, the Rev. William Hanckel, had organized a Canterbury Club and was holding activities for students.
By now it was clear to the people of St. Thomas’s themselves that the church and parish house were inadequate for both parish and college ministry—Newark was growing rapidly thanks to Chrysler and DuPont expansion.
The parish began to consider its options shortly after the arrival of the Rev. Theodore Ludlow in 1948. Should they improve the current parish house? Should they try to acquire land adjacent to the current property? After much deliberation, the parish purchased land on South College Avenue in 1950. This land was once owned by founding vestry member James Martin, so in a way the parish had come full circle. After fundraising and construction, the new parish house was completed in 1955 and the congregation moved in—the Great Hall served as the sanctuary while the new church was being built. The church itself was completed in 1960.
Even as St. Thomas’s was moving to its new location, the Diocese of Delaware created a Division of College Work within the Department of Christian Education in 1955. In 1959 the diocese funded a full-time university chaplain based at St. Thomas’s. This program continued until 1970, when campus ministry became independent of St. Thomas’s for a number of years
So the saints of St. Thomas’s decided to leave their longtime home for a new place. The new church was only a few blocks away, but in many ways it was a world away.
5. 1950 to the Present
The Rev. Theodore Ludlow served St. Thomas’s for 32 years after his arrival in 1948, ministering to the parish and serving as chaplain to Episcopal university students until 1959. His great accomplishment was to lead the fund-raising and transition to a new church home on South College Avenue and to sustain the parish for many years.
In 1982, the parish called the Rev. Robert Duncan as its 19th rector. Since the advent of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the parish had become accustomed to weekly Eucharist. In the mid-1980s, in conformance with national church practice, the altar was moved from its original position against the east wall forward to the chancel crossing so that worshippers could surround it as a table. The choir and organ—originally in the loft at the church’s west end—were moved the east side, behind the altar. Here began the practice of congregants moving from the pews to surround the altar’s other three sides for the Eucharist.
It was Father Duncan who first envisioned the north wall of stained glass windows depicting over 100 saints and other historical worthies facing east toward the altar, led by St. Thomas himself. After more than 20 years, the beautiful “great cloud of witnesses” was completed.
During this time, St. Thomas’s, in collaboration with the Diocese of Delaware, developed a vital parish-based campus ministry program with a full-time priest who served as university chaplain and associate rector. This restored the longtime connection between the parish and the university. Children’s Christian formation has been another strong focus with dedicated professional and lay leadership. Under the Rev. Kempton Baldridge, a dynamic program combining high school youth and college students was begun that has continued in different forms in the years since then.
In 1994, The Rev. Thomas Jensen, was called to be St. Thomas’s 20th rector. Sometime during the ‘90s air conditioning was installed. In time, the church acquired a new digital organ, and the music program has been blessed over many years by devoted and talented organists and choir leaders.
St. Thomas’s 21st rector, the Rev. Paul Gennett, Jr., joined the parish in 2008. Father Gennett committed the parish to carefully living within its financial means and developing strong servant leadership in the laity. The parish’s prayerful self discipline became so effective that St. Thomas’s was able to mount a capital campaign—called Forward in Faith–to purchase the Grove next door. This preserved the land as a natural area for Newark’s people as well as for parish life.
In the mid 1800s, parishioners looked to the future as they founded a parish in Newark. A century later, another generation stepped up to build the present buildings. Current parishioners, as well, are looking Forward in Faith with confidence and hope. To quote Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”