Even though St. Thomas’s observes 1842 as its founding year, the story began in 1835 when the Rev. George Allen, an Episcopal priest, came to 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, St. James, Mill Creek, was eight miles away. By 1842 Allen and a group of laymen decided that is was time to form an Episcopal church in Newark, to join the Methodist and Presbyterian congregations already present.
The next step was to build a church–but what sort of building? Some would have been content with a simple structure, but George Allen had other ideas. This is where the story, and the original St. Thomas’s, located 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, introducing more color, ceremony, and music into worship. For church buildings, the reformers turned to the Gothic style of architecture. This is known as the Oxford or Tractarian movement. 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 them.
But George Allen and several vestry members did support the new ideas, and they wanted their new church building to reflect them. Through his mentor, the bishop of Maryland, Allen contacted Richard Upjohn, a leading Gothic revival architect. 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.
There was some discussion over which plan to build—Upjohn’s design or a simpler building. George Allen and his supporters prevailed. The first portion of the church was erected and consecrated in 1845. It served the congregation for over a century. The building still stands today, not in its original use, but beautifully restored by the University of Delaware as Bayard Sharp Hall. An early example of Gothic revival architecture, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Growing into God’s Kingdom
Christians believe that every human being is made in God’s image and that all are equal. However, people live in time and place and culture—which often have not reflected God’s desire for God’s people.
In Newark, Delaware, in the 1840s, as elsewhere in America, white men controlled 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 until 1865. 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 comfortable as it was in the main part of the nave. St. Thomas’s practiced the segregation that was the custom of the times in Delaware. As times have changed, primarily in recent years, the parish has become more diverse, welcoming African Americans and people from many ethnic backgrounds as brothers and sisters in faith and fellowship.
For many years, women played a supporting, and subordinate, role in the church. They taught Sunday school, raised funds, cooked food, and did good works. As time went on, they took on more responsibility, but many years passed before they reached the top levels of parish leadership. A long-running annual antique show organized by the women of St. Thomas’s provided much of the funding for the current church buildings. 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. Full liturgical participation took even longer. 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 first women priests in the Episcopal Church were ordained at an “illegal” ceremony in 1974, and the church officially accepted women priests in 1976. Since the 1990s, ordained women have served St. Thomas’s as assistant clergy and university chaplains.
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.
Serving town and gown.
St. Thomas’s has a longstanding relationship with the University of Delaware, founded as Delaware College. College students (all male) participated in 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, president of the university, was also active at St. Thomas’s. During that period, many faculty members also belonged to the church. They steered many students to St. Thomas’s. 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, 20 new pews, and tower—taking the form that it still has today. Another expansion took place in 1890 when a parish house holding 50 people (no longer standing) was built on the property.
Moving to South College Avenue
In 1939 Bishop Arthur McKinstry, after a survey of the diocese’s needs and opportunities, recommended 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, when 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 offering activities for students.
By now it was clear to the people of St. Thomas’s that the church and parish house were inadequate for both parish and college ministry. Newark’s rapid growth thanks to Chrysler and DuPont expansion, as well as the post-war baby boom, brought more people to the church.
The parish began to consider its options shortly after the arrival of the Rev. Theodore Ludlow in 1948. After much deliberation, St. Thomas’s purchased land on South College Avenue in 1950. This property 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 adjoining church was being built. The church itself was completed in 1960. This mid-century modern structure, designed by Homsey Architects, still serves the parish today.
As St. Thomas’s was moving to its new location, the Diocese of Delaware created a Division of College Work 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.
To the Present
The Rev. Robert Duncan became rector in 1982, following Ludlow’s thirty-two years of service. Since the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the parish had become accustomed to weekly Eucharist. In the mid-1980s, following national church practice, the altar was moved from its original position against the east wall forward to the chancel crossing so that the priest could face the congregation to celebrate the Eucharist. The choir and organ—originally in the loft at the church’s west end—were moved to 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.
In 1994, The Rev. Thomas Jensen became St. Thomas’s rector. During his tenure air conditioning was installed, the nave was refurbished and a new digital organ replaced an aging small pipe organ.
The Rev. Paul Gennett, Jr., became rector 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 land adjacent to the church, reaching to West Park Place, that is known as the Grove. This preserved the land as a natural area for Newark’s people as well as for use by the parish. Father Gennett retired in late 2017, and the Rev. Dr. Howell Sasser became rector in early 2019.