In 1766 the Rev. Bela Hubbard, a missionary from London, took the bold step of conducting the first Episcopal services in a section of Old Saybrook, CT called Potopaug. The Rev. Hubbard followed the doctrine, discipline, and worship practices of the Church of England. The Connecticut Valley had been settled for many years before Hubbard’s visit, but the colonies were Puritan and allowed no Anglican churches. The Revolutionary War interrupted further development until 1790. St. John’s came into existence that year as the First Episcopal Society of Old Saybrook. Uriah Hayden, a prominent local shipbuilder and tavern keeper was the Warden for the new parish, which included twenty-two residents of Essex. This group signed an agreement to fund the building of the first church building, which was erected in 1793 near the Essex train station. This building replaced a one-room schoolhouse that was taken apart and reconstructed as the taproom at the Griswold Inn in Essex near the previous Rectory. The church was consecrated in 1797, and services were led by Solomon Blakesley, a layman from East Haddam.
Uriah Hayden, an active member and founder of the early parish, selected the name St. John’s. Other founders included Timothy Starkey, David Williams, Elisha Mather, Noah Scovell, and Asa Williams. They purchased tickets in the Hartford Statehouse Lottery to raise money for the new church and to cover the salary of the Rev. William Green, who was hired in 1790. There is no record to indicate that anyone in the parish won the lottery. They also contributed $38.50, which covered Rev. Green’s salary for six months.
About 1800, the building was moved to Prospect Street, where its foundations can still be seen. A steeple was added in 1817, and in 1821 St. John’s was enlarged and consecrated.
By 1827 the parish had grown to forty-one communicant members. There were forty-four students in Sunday school and six teachers on staff. The first forty years the parish existed were a continual financial struggle, but the church survived. As time passed, more affluent members of the congregation gave generous gifts and memorials that allowed the parish to begin purchasing stained glass windows, an organ, and valuable silver and brass items.
In the 1830s, the first church societies were formed. The Ladies Missionary Society first met in 1830 with four officers and eighteen members. The Ladies Sewing Society was established in 1937 with Miss Harriet Hayden, Miss Mary Hayden, and Mrs. Martha Hayden as directors and a membership of ten. Later, it was reorganized and included well-known Essex names such as Bushnell and Doane.
In those days, it was not customary to have very elaborate Christmas decorations, but St. John’s bucked that trend and decorated the church with large trees and evergreen garlands. Members of other churches that generally frowned on this practice liked what had been done at St. John’s and expressed it openly.
In 1897, the present church was built through the generosity of Captain Joseph Tucker, his wife Mary F.E. Hayden Tucker, and their niece Susan M. Loomis. The Tucker bequest stipulated that the new church building be built on Main Street, adjoining the Rectory, which had been purchased in 1833. The old Rectory became the Parish House, and the old church was sold to the Roman Catholics for $1,250. They occupied it until 1926 when it was destroyed by fire.
The new church took seven months to build. It was made of stone from the quarry at Joshua Rocks in Hamburg Cove. The design was of a Romanesque or Norman style of architecture. It was considered an outstanding example of that type of architecture in the diocese and praised for its beauty. The architect, Joseph W. Northrop of Bridgeport, incorporated the beautiful old stained glass windows from the former church and new ones imported from England into the design. Their Tiffany glass is now priceless.
A year before the new building was consecrated, Mary Hayden Tucker, widow of Captain Tucker and a descendent of Uriah Hayden, died and left her home to the church to be used as a Rectory. The house was built in 1807 and is believed to be the first brick structure in Essex. The home originally belonged to Samuel Hayden, a descendant of one of the original founders. Mary’s will stipulated that their portraits must always be displayed on the first floor of the home as a memorial, and they did until the Rectory was later sold outside of St. John’s. The original Rectory turned Parish House and was torn down in 1927, and the east wing of the church was made into a parish house by excavating the basement and creating a kitchen, classrooms, or meeting rooms. A new heating system was also installed. Years passed, and eventually, the mortgage was paid, and a mortgage burning celebration was held.
Rectors came and went. St. John’s Altar Guild and Women’s Auxiliary were branches of St. John’s Parish Guild organized by Rev. Parker Vanamee. Through the efforts of the Junior Guild, made up of girls of high school age, and a group of devoted women, the redecoration of St. John’s was made possible in 1940. One Rector, Rev. Thomas H. Vail, whose portrait hangs in the Rector’s office, went on to become Bishop of Kansas some twenty years after serving St. John’s.
In 1949, the Undercroft was built in memory of Grace Southhard Hawkins and restored in 1982 in memory of Harper Woodward. In the 1950s the church was redecorated with the assistance of noted ecclesiastical architect Robert Robbins. Mr. Robbins hand-carved the cresting on the reredos behind the altar in his New York studio. A rededication service was held in September 1958.
The Parish House on Cross Street, adjacent to the church, was dedicated on October 18, 1953. The women of the Woman’s Auxiliary completely redecorated the building when it was converted to a Sunday school building as well as a Parish House in 1963.
1963 also saw the installation of a new organ by Fritz Noack of Massachusetts. The new instrument left some space available behind it, and the St. John’s Parish library was founded and placed there in memory of Elbert Hawkins.
The Reverend Kenneth Thomas arrived in 1963 and continued as Rector until his retirement in 1991. Rev. Thomas’ tenure was distinguished by the intellectual and spiritual vigor of his preaching and by the dignity and seriousness of the worship services. During this time, St. John’s adopted the new Prayer Book and Hymnal with little difficulty and briefly experimented with alternative forms of worship, including a few jazz/folk services in the late 1970s. They instituted the first women chalice bearers in 1977; and adopted a schedule of Sunday worship, which included a celebration of the Eucharist every week.
In September 1978, the church was again rededicated after an extensive repair and renewal program, which included a new furnace, cleaning of the woodwork, ceiling, marble columns, and stained glass windows. The walls were painted, the floor refinished, and new carpeting installed throughout the building. The women of the parish made new kneeling cushions for the altar rail and Sanctuary. They incorporated symbols of the Christian tradition in needlepoint designs. The repair and renewal program was funded by pledges from the congregation, amounting to $30,000.
In 1982, the Undercroft of the church was completely redesigned and decorated. This room is used extensively for meetings, social gatherings, and Sunday school classes. This project was made possible by a memorial fund for a parishioner, Harper Woodward. It was dedicated on Easter Sunday, 1982.
In 1993, the Rev. Hope Adams was called to be St. John’s Rector. Since the Rev. Adams was to live in the St. John’s Rectory, known as the Hayden House and built in 1807, extensive renovations were required before the new Rector could move in. Much of the work was accomplished by parishioners, and the house received many improvements to include a new kitchen, improved bathroom facilities, fresh paint, and wallpaper.
Although she was the first woman to be called Rector, the Rev. Adams knew what the people of St. John’s wanted for a new Rector, and she fulfilled the need for services following a traditional Episcopal format with well prepared and delivered sermons.
Soon after Rev. Adams arrived she realized that the church itself was in need of some improvements: The slate roof needed repairs; the crowded Parish House was being shared by the church office, the choir room, and the sacristy, all needing more space; the Rector needing an office had moved into the library, the kitchen needed to be remodeled, a new heating plant was required; Sunday school classroom space was needed; the church was limited to two small bathrooms, and there was no accessibility for the handicap.
After studies by several committees, several church meetings, and a significant fundraising campaign, extensive expansion and renovation of St. John’s Church began in early 1996. The original $800,000 estimate soon became a $1.1 million program. It resulted in building a large connector to the old but newly renovated parish house behind the church, with restored arched ceilings, a new sacristy on Westside of the Sanctuary, four modern bathrooms, a new kitchen, and a renovated undercroft. Also, repairs were made to the slate roof, and a new heating plant was installed. The most significant change in the Sanctuary was moving the altar rail down to the main floor of the church, thereby making it handicap accessible. A Memorial Garden was created behind the church, and a new courtyard was created that offered handicap access to the Undercroft level. This project was essentially completed in the year 2000 with some remaining problems not corrected until 2002.
During this period, St. John’s continued to grow under the Reverend Hope Adams’ leadership, which included a significant increase in community involvement and an expanded Outreach program. Rev. Adams was also an active supporter of the Yale University Berkeley School of Divinity. St. John’s had several different seminary students as church supporting staff for several years. St. John’s hired a full-time curate in 2001, the Rev. Mark Byers who, with his wife, had found a home with the people of St. John’s. During this period, the Rev. Adams married the Rev. William Eakins, Rector of Trinity Church in Hartford, CT. Both the Reverends Hope and Bill Eakins retired in October 2002, and they now live in Rhode Island.
St. John’s was fortunate to have the Rev. Dr. “Chip: Nix, from Austin Texas, as its Interim Rector, The Rev. Dr. Nix, his wife, and her mother live in the St. John’s Rectory.
Dr. Nix was with us for approximately seventeen months when the parish called The. Rev. Jonathan H. Folts to be it’s next Rector. Rev. Folts arrived in April of 2004. He and his wife, and three children lived in the rectory on Main Street until the parish sold the building several years later. The house proceeds were put in a trust to provide a housing allowance for Rev. Folts and future rectors. The Folts bought a home in Ivoryton and lived there for the rest of his tenure. After fifteen years with us, Rev. Folts was elected the Bishop of South Dakota and left us in July of 2019.