The Church Building
Worshipers entered the colonial church of 1767 through a door located in the middle of the present south wall. The pulpit was sited across the church from the door, the Holy Table abutted the east wall where the chancel arch is now and there were two tiers of clear-glass windows separated by a second-story gallery around three sides.
In 1757, Thomas Hand placed a marble plaque in memory of his wife Sarah in the north wall of the church that preceded the present plaque. The only artifact from either previous church found is the present one, it was carved in England.
In 1880, the vestry authorized the reconstruction of the church. The gallery and upper tier of windows were removed and the height of the lower tier was raised and then arched them over. The roof was lowered twelve feet and replaced with the clear windows with patterned stained glass windows (the last remaining of which is in the southeast corner). A recessed apse was added to the east end of the building, the main door was relocated to its present site. Lastly the pulpit and pews were replaced.
In 1905, the parish added a bell tower and a parish hall. In 1961, the parish partially razed this latter structure to make room for the present parish hall.
The present building of Emmanuel Church is the third Anglican house of worship on this site. While it is not known when the first edifice was erected, vestry minutes refer to a wooden chapel being razed in 1720 to make way for a larger brick one. That second building was replaced in 1767 by a third one, which comprises the nave of the present church. Its impressive dimensions are 66 feet by 40 feet by two stories.
It can be assumed there was an Anglican church in Chestertown soon after 1706, when the Provincial Council of Maryland designated the town the port of entry for Cecil, Kent, and Queen Anne’s Counties. This building is considered to be the first Anglican house of worship in Chestertown. By 1720, the original wooden structure was replaced by a new brick chapel known as Chestertown Chapel which served as a chapel-of-ease for St. Paul's, Kent Parish.
In 1766, the Provincial Council of Maryland created Chester Parish out of land ceded to it by Kent County’s two original parishes: St. Paul’s, Kent and Shrewsbury. At the time of its chartering, Chester Parish covered eighty-five square miles, extending north from the Chester River. The freeholders of the new parish met at the crossroads known as I.U., near the present village of Worton, and elected a vestry that made plans to build a new church on that site and to enlarge the chapel in Chestertown.
Within a year, however, the vestry decided to build a new chapel on the Chestertown site, using the proceeds from the sale of fifty thousand pounds of tobacco that was collected as a tax levied on the freeholders of the parish for the support of the church.
In recognition of the 250th anniversary of the creation of Chester Parish and the building of Chestertown Chapel (1766-1772), now known as Emmanuel Church, the present-day Vestry of Chester Parish undertook a multiyear study of the many aspects of colonial life in Chestertown and surrounding Kent County that played a role in early history of the parish. An in-depth look at the social, political, and economic landscape of the time, including cross-referencing early vestry minutes with census records, led the vestry to recognize the role played by enslaved persons living and working on the farms owned by the early parish leadership (see George Shivers, Ph.D. article). In 2022, the vestry commissioned and dedicated a plaque commemorating and acknowledging with gratitude, those enslaved persons whose involuntary labor provided the wealth for building and preserving this historic church.
Long & Rich History
By 1776, however, the Declaration of Independence and the constitution of the newly-established State of Maryland had deprived Anglican churches of their tax support, and required clergy to take an oath of loyalty to the cause of independence. Four years later, there were only six priests of the Church of England remaining in Maryland. One was The Reverend Samuel Keene, who assumed his duties as Rector of Chester Parish in 1779 and served one year.
In 1780, The Reverend William Smith, D.D., arrived in Chestertown to organize a new school. He was a respected educator having written the first curriculum for King’s College (now Columbia University) and served as first Provost of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). Upon his arrival, the vestry offered him six hundred bushels of wheat to take on the additional duties of Rector of Chester Parish filling the vacancy left by Mr. Keene's departure. His first sermon in Chestertown, delivered on 4 July 1780, was a Thanksgiving for the Establishment of Peace and Independence in America. By 1782, Dr. Smith’s school had enrolled one hundred forty students, so he petitioned the Maryland General Assembly for a charter and secured the backing of George Washington who graciously allowed the new college to bear his name.
Faced with the challenges and burdens that independence had imposed on the Anglican church in the colonies, Dr. Smith convened a meeting of clergy and laymen from Kent and Queen Anne's counties in 1780 at the Chestertown Chapel. At this meeting, The Reverend James Jones, Rector of Shrewsbury Parish, moved that "the Church of England as heretofore so known in the province, be now called the Protestant Episcopal Church." Dr. Smith and the others agreed to the name, which was subsequently adopted by all at the first General Convention of the Anglican churches in the former colonies in 1789.
Following Dr. Smith's return to the College of Philadelphia in 1789, Chester Parish was served by five different rectors, each of whom served short tenures. In 1809, The Reverend William H. Wilmer became the eleventh rector of Chester Parish. During his tenure, the church building at I.U. Crossroads was allowed to fall into ruin, and the Chestertown Chapel became the only church for Chester Parish. Four years later, Mr. Wilmer was called to serve as rector of St. Paul’s Church, Alexandria, from which he helped to found the Virginia Theological Seminary.
Over the next 70 years, Chester Parish was served by eleven different rectors until 1871 when The Reverend Stephen Roberts was called to be the 23rd Rector of Chester Parish. Under his leadership the 1880 renovation of the building took place and Chestertown Chapel was deconsecrated as Emmanuel Church by the Rt. Rev.. Henry C. Lay, first Bishop of the Diocese of Easton two years later.
The Windows & Furnishings
There are several notable stained-glass windows. Over the altar there is a triptych depicting Moses holding the Ten Commandments, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. Colonial custom dictated that the Decalogue, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed be displayed on tablets in the front of churches. Emmanuel Church would have had such tablets, which were removed when the apse was added. This window is a Victorian adaptation of the colonial custom.
In place of the original door in the south wall there is a window depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This window was designed and executed by the Tiffany Studio in New York.
Contemporary additions to the church include needlepoint kneelers, chancel chairs and prie-dieux, and hand-made chandeliers. In 1993 a two-manual mechanical action instrument of 23 stops, 29 ranks, built by Harrison & Harrison of Durham, England, was installed in the north wall recess. During that year a number of special services and concerts celebrated the installation of the organ. We continue to celebrate our wonderful instrument with an organ concert series.
We have a rich historical record, largely in thanks to the efforts of Arthur Leiby, Archivist of Diocese of Easton, retired.
Stained Glass Window History by Ron Abler.