History of St. John's

A Capsule History of St. John's Parish, Mount Rainier

 

St. John's Chapel Founded

On October 17, 1909, when Mount Rainier was still a crossroad village of a few streets and houses, a small group of Episcopalians met together in Pott's Hall on Rhode Island Avenue to form St. John's Chapel of St. Matthew's Parish, Hyattsville. The officiant was The Rev. Henry Thomas of St. Matthew's.

Other churches in the area had also been named St. John’s. One of the first Episcopal churches in the State of Maryland was St. John's, Broad Creek. Over the years, the membership of St. John's, Mount Rainier has included individuals who traced their ancestry to parishioners of St. John's, Broad Creek.

 

 

Early 20th Century

Even before St. John’s had a church building, a Sunday School was organized, with the former Mayor of Mount Rainier, Joseph T. K. Plant as Superintendent, so there was a need for a place to hold Sunday School classes. Mrs. Jeminna Bartlett offered her house for this purpose. In November 1911, a committee chaired by Dr. John S. Dorsey was named to select the site for a new church. Arrangements were made for the erection of a building costing $2,600, made of brick and built on the present church site.

The first service in the new structure was held on Easter Sunday evening, April 7, 1912, with the Rev. Henry Thomas preaching. The congregation overflowed the church, and now St. John's was to become a Parochial Mission of St. Matthew's Parish.

Ethel Leona Smith was to have been the first person baptized in the new church but, due to illness, she was baptized in her home on April 12, 1912. The first child baptized in the church was Lillian Elizabeth Schley, daughter of William and Delia Schley. Lillian was baptized by The Rev. James M. E. McKee of the Bishop's Cathedral Staff on May 5, 1912.

 

The church did not have any water piped in; therefore, water had to be brought by members from home to fill the vases for flowers. The heating plant consisted of a potbelly stove which was kept going by everyone attending church. It was not uncommon for someone to stay all night and keep the stove going to have heat in the church for the early services!

 

In October 1912, Bishop Harding made his first visitation and presided over the Confirmation of a class of twenty persons. The congregation was especially proud to have the Bishop come to their church for they had personally made the Altar Cross, done the Altar embroidery work, made the new racks, closets and floors, kneeling benches, and credence table, and did all the staining of the woodwork and Chancel decorations.

 

By this time there was a flourishing Ladies' Aid Society, a choir, and a Church School of 140 pupils, teachers, and officers. The Rev. James M. E. McKee of the Bishop's Cathedral Staff conducted services twice a month on Sunday evenings.

 

In 1913 St. John's reported a membership of fifty families and forty confirmed persons. The first wedding in the old church was on June 16, 1915, Frederick C. Snowden and Carrie Rocker were joined as man and wife by The Rev. William Bell Dent.

Priests serving St. John's during this period were James M. E. McKee (1913), Neilson Falls (1914), William Bell Dent (1915), and Philip A. Dales (1918).

 

The 1920s

By 1928, 191 persons were confirmed, and it was apparent, after the Bishop would not come to the church because of its unstable structure, that a larger church would have to be built. A site on Rhode Island Avenue near the Washington, DC line was considered, but the majority decided to keep the same piece of property in Mount Rainier and build the new church on the site of the old one

In the meantime, a Parish Hall was built in which to hold services and social affairs until a new church could be built. It was a gray wooden building which was used as a Church, Sunday School, and Parish Hall from 1929 until 1934. After the new church was built, it was used as a Parish Hall and Primary Sunday School until 1969.

During the '20s, priests serving St. John's were George Bradley (1920), John M. Hamilton (1923), Harold V. O. Loundsbury (1924), Seth A. Mills (1925) and G. Berkeley Griffith (1926).

 

St. John's Becomes a Diocesan Mission

During the Vicarate of The Rev. Berkeley Griffith in 1929, St. John's became a Diocesan Mission under the Bishop's jurisdiction. St. Matthew's Parish, Hyattsville, ceded to the Diocesan Convention that portion of its Parish territory that was under the influence of St. John's.

In 1931 James Valliant, who would later become Rector, served St. John's as a Lay Reader. In 1932 The Rev. Walter P. Plumley, Jr. came to St. John's as Vicar. During his stay of six years, the membership increased to 375, almost double what it had been ten years earlier.

The New Church is Built

Ground was broken for a new church building on Palm Sunday, March 25, 1934. On April 25, the cornerstone was laid with several hundred persons attending the ceremonies. The stone read "1913-1934." The Rev. James Freeman, Bishop of Washington, officiated and was assisted by The Rev. James M. E. McKee, a member of the Bishop's staff at the Cathedral, and The Rev. Clyde Brown, then Rector of St. Matthew's Parish. A box was placed in the cornerstone containing a copy of The Evening Star newspaper, a history of the Church, Church bulletins, coins, names of the Building Committee, names of those who started the Church, a Bible, and a prayer book. The cornerstone was given by Alfred Stubbins. He was a stonecutter and, at the time, was working on the Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC. He was given a piece of marble, and he cut the stone but never finished cutting the years on it because he died in an auto accident. The copper box inside the stone was also donated. The new Church was built at a cost of $20,000.

 

The first service was held on Sunday, September 25, 1934, and was conducted by Bishop Freeman.

 

The first person baptized in the new church was Ernest Allen Wyatt, Jr., son of Margaret and Ernest Wyatt. The first persons married in the new church were Charles Xander and Malry Esther Easterday, by The Rev. Walter Plumley on October 3, 1934. (The couple who were to have been the first married in the new building were William Miller and Thelma Bates, but the license bureau was closed and, since Bill was in the Navy, he had to return to Norfolk where the ceremony took place instead.)

St. John's Mission Grows

During Rev. Plumley's tenure, A Young Peoples' Fellowship was formed, sponsored by Mrs. Mary McDaniel Houck and Mr. Amos Horstmann. They met on Sunday evenings with prayer service and discussions. It was an active social group with activities such as wienie roasts, hayrides, and watermelon feasts. The group also put on various kinds of entertainment. There was also a Men's Club organized, and they helped contribute to Church upkeep by putting on plays and a "Red, White and Blue Revue."

In 1939, The Rev. C. Randolph Mengers became Vicar and was instrumental in helping reduce the debt on the new building. He was succeeded in 1942 by The Rev. Richard Hooker Wilmer, Jr. During the years these men served, they gave able direction and leadership to St. John's and also did much to see that the debt was paid, and that St. John's became self-supporting - which occurred during the winter of 1942.

St. John's Achieves Parish Status

St. John's Episcopal Church obtained Parish status on her 35th anniversary in 1944 after a long and difficult trip from her beginning, under the Rectorship of Rev. Wilmer.

 

On All Saints' Day, 1945, The Rev. James Valliant was installed as Rector. At this same service, the mortgage on the Church was burned. While Rev. Valliant was Rector, a Women's Auxiliary for younger women was organized, with Dorothy Lee as its first President.

 

The able leadership continued with the arrival of The Rev. Robert Clark, who served St. John's as Rector from 1949 to 1956.

Father Brown's Rectorship

On April 1, 1957, The Rev. Elwyn D. Brown arrived at St. John's Church. Rev. Brown embarked on visitation of the Parish to get to know everyone personally.

In June 1957, the Vestry endorsed specifications for building a new Rectory. Around the Christmas holidays of 1958, Rev. Brown and his family moved into the new Rectory on 22nd Place in Mount Rainier. The mortgage for the Rectory was $21,000. The old Rectory, located on a lot next door to the Church, was torn down in 1958, and the ground was paved for a parking lot in November 1958.

Under Rev. Brown's leadership, a Building Fund was started. Until 1959 St. John's Parish had only a Memorial Fund that provided for furnishings and equipment needed for operation of the Parish. On March 11, 1959, Lorene Russell entered the Church Triumphant and, at the request of her husband Philip, money in lieu of flowers was sent to St. John's to start a formal Building Fund for an Educational and Social Hall. The gift at this time was $851.64. In the ensuing ten years, the gifts to the Building Fund swelled it to $40,000, enough to let St. John's proceed with plans to erect the present Parish Hall.

In January 1969, the old Parish Hall was torn down and, during the ensuing months, the new hall was completed so that dedication services could be held on November 16, 1969. (Years later, during the rectorship of Larry Donathan, the assembly room in the parish hall was dedicated as the Father Brown Room.)

During Rev. Brown's tenure the Ladies' Guild and Women's Auxiliary were combined into the Episcopal Churchwomen (ECW). Over the years, the ECW sponsored many activities, including rummage sales and both Christmas and Easter Bazaars to assist with the Building Fund.

The Young People's Fellowship was reorganized and met on Sunday evenings in the Parish Hall with very good attendance. The YPF engaged in many social activities, including participation in services both at St. John's and at the Washington Cathedral. During the summers, many of its members, with some Parish assistance, attended Episcopal Church camps: Camp Strawderman for persons of junior high school age and Shrinemont for senior high students, both located in Virginia. St. John's was fortunate to have a number of Seminarians, attending the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, to assist with the YPF and other church activities and services.

While Rev. Brown served as Rector, we had two Associate Rectors: The Rev. G. Garrett Carpenter, who also was a member of and served as Chaplain to the Mount Rainier Volunteer Fire Department (1963-65), and The Rev. William T. Newland (1966-67).

The Seventies

On March 20, 1970, Rev. Brown resigned as Rector of St. John's effective May 31, to become Rector of Christ Church, Rockville, MD. With Rev. Brown's departure, St. John's was faced with a seven-month period without a Rector. The Parish rose to the occasion and continued with reasonable success spiritually, socially, and financially. Lay Readers G. Franklin Padgett, Earl Simon, and Harold Lort continued the church services during this time. In addition to its members, St. John's also used the help of the Diocesan Committee to aid in selecting a new Rector.

We welcomed The Rev. Allen H. Wyman as Rector in January 1971. Rev. Wyman carried on the tradition of St. John's with faithful pastoral care for the sick, sorrowing, and those with problems, A notable achievement under his leadership was the successful integration of minority groups into our congregation. During this time, with the generous help of the ECW, St. John's made significant gains in reducing the mortgage on the new Parish Hall. In 1978 Rev. Wyman resigned to go into social work.

Father Engram's Rectorship

The Rev. W. Thomas Engram was among the clergy who served the Parish in the interim following Rev. Wyman's departure. He was called to be Rector and was instituted as such on October 15, 1978.

A number of improvements were made to church facilities, including air conditioning of the Church proper, installing a chair lift between the Parish Hall and the Church to provide disabled accessibility, the installation of special restroom facilities, and new pew cushions.

A special event occurring in 1981 was the burning of the mortgage on the Parish Hall, attended by many former Rectors and members of St. John's.

A new Rogers electronic organ was installed and dedicated in 1983. Also, that year, a parish newsletter, "The St. John's Banner," was launched under the editorship of Beth Hensley and mailed to every parish family. (Beth would later go on to seminary and become a Priest in the Episcopal Church.) On October 13, 1984, St. John's celebrated its 75th Anniversary with a dinner in the Parish Hall.

The 1980's and '90's were a period of transition during which many long-time members moved away or moved on to the Church Triumphant. 1987 saw the passing of Eva Kirkpatrick and Louise Loomis, the last two parishioners who had attended the first worship service at Pott's Hall in 1909. But during this period, St. John's assumed its present multicultural character as we welcomed many new members arriving from West Africa and the Caribbean region. As an immigrant himself (from Newfoundland), Rev. Engram had a special empathy for people making the transition to a new country and culture.

This was also a period of transition in St. John's traditions as well. For a few years, we had no choir; the "Banner" ceased publication; and the Christmas Bazaar was no longer held. But in 1988, the first International Day was held at St. John's, celebrating the foods of the diverse traditions from which our membership comes, starting a new tradition. In 1989, we welcomed Dr. William Lewis, who hails from Sierra Leone, as a seminarian, whose field work at St. John's emphasized bringing new members more fully into the life of the Parish. A Parish retreat was held in September of 1989, dubbed "Stirring the Waters" ... a time of fun and fellowship, but with a serious purpose - to encourage stewardship and make plans for the life of the Parish family both socially and financially in the years ahead. New traditions have arisen in the ensuing years such as the annual Tea Party and church trips to interesting places. And in 1993, the choir was reborn under the direction of Quasie Woode and organist Raymond Nottidge.

St. John's bade farewell to Rev. Engram in January of 1994. Having been with us for over fifteen years, Rev. Engram was St. John's' longest-serving Rector to date, as well as the first one to leave the post through retirement from full-time ministry.

A Period of Transition

Rev. Engram's retirement also ushered in the longest interim period in St. John's history up to that time. The life of the Parish continued under the leadership of Florian Knights, who served as Senior Warden throughout the interim period. Our worship was lead for over a year and a half by The Rev. Canon Edmond Ilogu, who also instituted weekly adult Bible study, which continues regularly on Thursday evenings. Following Canon Ilogu's departure in October 1996, we were still searching for a new Rector, and The Rev. James West filled in during the balance of the interim.

Father Donathan's Rectorship

On June 1, 1997, The Rev. Larry Donathan arrived as St. John's new Rector, and he was formally instituted to this ministry by the Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, The Rt. Rev. Jane Holmes Dixon, on September 14. He immediately set to work, giving each member of the Vestry responsibility for organizing a committee to oversee a particular aspect of Parish life. During his tenure, a Mission Statement was adopted for our Parish; the "Banner" newsletter returned to publication; an outreach program was begun with members of St. John's preparing and serving meals at Christ House, a residential facility in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington. The Parish also added two new annual traditions that have continued since: a mid-summer Choir Festival and a Harvest Festival.

As had been noted previously, the parish hall assembly room is dedicated in honor of the former Rector, The Rev. Elwyn D. Brown. The dedication of the Father Brown Room was celebrated October 24, 1999.

In 2000, at the urging of some parishioners who were of the Igbo ethnic group from Nigeria, a regular weekly Sunday service in the Igbo language was instituted. As a result, a group of Igbo Anglicans who had previously held a monthly service at another location became parishioners of St. John’s. The Rev. Clinton Esonu, himself an Igbo, joined St. John's as Assistant Rector and officiated at these services.

In 2001 the Social & Cultural Committee organized a Caribbean cruise, sailing from June 30th aboard the Carnival Holiday. Thus began a tradition of St. John’s cruises that continued every couple of years until interrupted by the Covid pandemic. The cruises have always been well-attended.

Into the 21st Century

Fr. Donathan resigned in early 2003 to pursue an opportunity to teach, and Fr. Esonu also left to accept a call at another parish. This posed a challenge to the Diocese of Washington to try to maintain a diverse parish conducting services in two languages. In 2004 the Rev. Prince Williams arrived as Interim Rector, and the Diocese once again assigned Fr. Esonu to serve as the Stated Supply Priest for the Igbo-language ministry. In the fall of 2004, under the leadership of the Igbo women, a chapter of the Mothers' Union was instituted at St. John's.

However, maintaining two distinct communities of parishioners proved difficult. Fr. Williams departed in 2006 and Bishop John Bryson Chane appointed The Rev. Robert Gillespie as Priest-in-Charge. In 2007 the Igbo-language ministry was relocated as a separate congregation under the administration of the Diocese, and under Fr. Gillespie's leadership, the emphasis was on restoring unity and financial stability. This was accomplished, with able assistance from dedicated lay leadership, especially the Senior and Junior Wardens, Eugene Wright and Kojo Dixon.

In March of 2008, the Rev. Canon Daniel Darko succeeded Fr. Gillespie as Priest-in-Charge. Mr. David Cole was hired as Choir Director; he is known for his dedication to that ministry and for organizing our annual Choir Festival Sunday. St. John’s web site was developed and came online in 2009.

In 2009, St. John’s celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the congregation. A year of preparation culminated in the celebration of the Centennial Banquet, held at Martin’s Crosswinds in Greenbelt, MD on Saturday, October 17th. A special prayer and song were composed, and a commemorative logo and t-shirt were designed to mark the occasion.

On Sunday afternoon, May 2nd, 2010, the new Johannus Electronic Organ was dedicated at a service of Solemn Evensong, with Bishop Chane officiating. Earlier that year, St. John’s Choir was a participant at the Diocesan Convention at the Cathedral.

 

In 2012, the currently active “Sixty-Plus” Seniors Group was organized. In addition to their own monthly meetings, the group has sponsored several events for the whole parish from time to time.

 

Over the years, St. John’s has been blessed with several members who had been active parishioners for many years. In 2014, special recognition events were held for Ms. Estelle Miller, Mr. Quasie Woode and Ms. Florian Knights.

 

After several years during which efforts were made to fix ongoing problems with the roof, a gala “Blow the Roof” event was held in May 2019 to raise funds for a complete overhaul. The event was a hit, and the necessary repairs were finally completed. 2020 dawned with the hopes of making progress on many of the challenges facing the parish – but then, in March, the public health emergency of the Covid-19 pandemic hit. It was necessary to suspend in-person attendance – both at services and in group and committee meetings. Thanks to technology, St. John’s continued to keep the congregation together “remotely.” Organizations were able to hold meetings via Zoom; daily prayer and weekly Bible study continued via conference call. And then thanks to the technical assistance of Shawn Oluwadimu and Brian Roman, live streaming of services via YouTube began with the Trinity Sunday service in June 2020. In-person worship did resume in 2021 but we continue to offer the video streaming service.

 

August of 2020 saw the departure of the Rev. Canon Daniel Darko after twelve years of service as Priest-in-Charge. Under the leadership of Senior Wardens David Creese until January 2021 and Deanie Anderson since, St. John’s turned to supply clergy to maintain Sunday worship. We have been blessed to have two priests during this period who agreed to serve for extended periods: the Rev. Virginia Brown-Nolan and the Rev. David Crosby. The fact that clergy retained on a supply basis have been willing to do so, and also become involved in supporting St. John’s beyond their Sunday duties, has been a tribute to the dedication of the people of our parish and the warm feeling of our particular community of God’s people.

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