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History of St. John's

St. John’s Episcopal Church History 

Then & Now – 1850 to the Present

Origin of the Church   Following a period of time when “one house of Public Worship, free for all denominations” was shared by worshippers in and near the Columbia area, a group of Episcopalians met in May 1847 for the purpose of forming a new parish, and building a church of their own.  The parish was called Rivanna and admitted to the Diocese of Virginia May 16, 1849.  A vestry of 7 men was chosen (a group of parishioners who conduct church business); William and James Galt, brothers who lived at Point of Fork and Glen Arvon in Fluvanna County, Samuel Stillman, Robert W. Ashlin, Edward Brown, Dr. William B. Towles, and Joseph Hodgson. 

Mr. Hodgson, a church trustee, purchased the plot of ground upon which the church stands in April 1848 for the sum of $20.00 (twenty dollars) from Judith B. Lee, local resident and businesswoman for over 40 years.  A small strip (35 feet wide) on the west side) side of the church plot had been sold previously to Mr. Hodgson which he later used for a family burial ground.  This cemetery is surrounded by a wrought iron fence and is marked with the Hodgson name.  Once privately owned by the Hodgson family, it is now part of the church cemetery,  From 1849 until 2023 there has been a Hodgson descendent as a member of the church.   

Cemetery   The church cemetery is on the north and south sides of the church with a few graves on the west side.  Burial sites date back to the origin of the church, with additional sites still available.  A Cemetery Trust Fund for perpetual care of the church grounds was established in 1996 by Jack Shea, husband of Mary Fitz Hodgson Watson Shea.  Both, now deceased, were members of St. John's.

 Original Church Structure   The Gothic Revival architectural style of the church, a simple rectangle with stepped gables front and back, was taken from an architectural pattern book common at the time.  The architect was probably Alexander J. Davis.  It is the same style as Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Powhatan, VA.  The structure was built for the approximate cost of $2000.  Upon completion it was consecrated as St. John’s on Sunday, July 30, 1850 by The Rt. Rev. John Johns.  The Rev. Lewis P. Clover accepted the position as the first Rector the day after its consecration and served for 2 years.  The church has been in continuous use since that date.  

Structural Changes – the Bell Tower   In 1912 a 3-story bell tower was added at the front of the church creating a new entry or narthex.  The bell in the tower was cast in Troy, New York and is dated 1851.  There are no records to indicate where and when the bell was acquired.  Since there was no tower prior to 1912 there is no indication the church had a bell before the tower was added.  This bell is rung prior to every service and on various other occasions such as weddings, funerals and on one instance in the late 1800's to alert the townspeople that a nearby home was on fire. 

Additional Structural Changes   Minor changes were made to the interior and exterior during the tenure of The Rev. Martin Johnson from 1896 through 1914.  The walls, once all white plaster, were wainscoted and the ceiling was paneled with a handsome starburst pattern.  Additional renovations were made to the church between 1917 and 1921.  New flooring was laid.  A center aisle and the currents pews replaced the original two aisles and pews.  The robing room called the “vestibule” was added to the northwest corner of the church during this time. 

The stone retaining wall was built around 1912 by men of the church including Dabney Cosby, Rush Cowherd, and three Stoneman brothers, Louis, George and Philip.  The stone was donated to the church by the C&O Railroad and was taken from the old turn-around that was part of the KanawhaCanal.   After the wall was built the iron fence was added and paid for by what was then called the Rector’s Guild.   In 1998 Jack Shea spearheaded a project to renovate the wall and fence.  New entry steps and a safety hand rail were added in 2008. 

Furnishings:  The baptismal font is believed to be the only surviving piece of the original church furnishings.  The small bowl is indicative of the Episcopal custom to sprinkle rather than immerse.  The two high back chairs in the chancel area came from old St. Paul’s Church in Goochland, date unknown.

Stained Glass Windows:  The beautiful stained glass windows were put in during the tenure of The Rev. Martin Johnson (1896 – 1914) to replace what were probably windows of clear glass in diamond shapes separated by wooden muntins as found in Emmanuel Church, Powhatan, of the same architectural design.  Some were paid for outright by families for memorials and others were paid for afterwards by memorial contributions.  No records have been found to indicate where the windows were made or by whom, but they are not Tiffany windows.  The unique feature of the windows is that there are 8 pairs of windows; 4 on the north and 4 on the south sides of the nave.   Each panel is 9 feet in height and 12 inches wide.  Up until recently the windows could be opened up from the center.  Due to the fragile nature of leaded stained glass, they are no longer opened.  The light reflected by these large windows provides a magnificent display of colors, creating a nearly ethereal ambience in this modest church.  There are 7 additional single windows  The design of the altar window, found in a number of churches around the country, is known as The Good Shepherd, based on a painting by German artist Bernhard Plockhurst (1825-1907).

The Rev. Stewart West served as Vicar of St. John’s for 25 years from 1974 - 2002, longer than any of his predecessors.  In recognition of his services a stained glass window designed and made by Wayne Cain of Bremo Bluff was installed over the transom of the exterior door in 1998. 

 A project begun in 2016 is underway to raise money through grants, foundations and private donations to fully restore the stained glass windows and replace or add properly vented protective coverings.  A separate fund account was established for this project.  The windows were assessed and prioritized for restoration based on need by Scott Taylor Studio in Richmond, VA.  The church now contracts with Scott Taylor for the restorations, and Larry Lanier for the carpentry work required to replace wooden sills, repair and paint the frames.  Six of the pairs of windows have been completed to date; plus two single windows.  One pair is out for restoration.  All of the exterior windows are now properly covered and vented.  The eigth pair of windows were once on the exterior of the church but when the vestibule was added they became interior windows where proper light was no longer reflected.  This is the final pair to be restored that will require a special plan to better backlight and showcase the window, and will be the most costly.  The approximate cost for each pair including frame repair, repainting, replacement of sill, and protective covering is $20,600.  No church funds have been used except for one $5000 matching grant through the Diocese!  The project has generated much interest among people near and far.  The generosity of others has been nothing short of a miracle -- an inspiration to parishioners who did not think this could possibly be done in our lifetime.  

The Pipe Organ   The current pipe organ built by Kilgen and Co. in the 1930’s was installed at St. John’s by Lewis and Hitchcock in the 1980s.  Our current organist DeWitt Long came to St. John’s in 2003.  Not only a talented musician, he repairs and restores pipe organs professionally so is able to deal with the temperamental challenges of a pipe organ!

Red Carpet “Fit for a Queen”   The red carpet in the center isle of the nave and chancel are is literally “fit for a queen.”  In 1957 there was a months long festival in Virginia commenorating the 350th anniversary of the founding of the colony at Jamestown.  Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain and her Prince Consort Philip visited during that time.  Upon arrival they descended from a plane upon a red carpet rolled out for them.  Miller & Rhoads, a Richmond department store, provided the red wool carpet.   Afterward, the festival committee decided to donate the carpet to a small rural Episcopal church and chose St. John’s.  It is not known how St. John’s was chosen, but it was a beautiful replacement for the existing thin, worn brown runner.  Sometimes the “unknowns” add to the charm and mystique of an historic place. 

Modern Conveniences   Air conditioning was added in 1994.  A new HVAC system was installed recently, replacing an old, inefficient and malfunctioning one.  The current heat pump system was preceded first by a coal fired furnace, and later by an oil circulator heater, neither of which provided sufficient warmth in winter.  A restroom and utility sink were added to the vestibule in the year 2000.   In 2020 a brick handicap ramp with wrought iron rail was added, offset slightly to the right front of the church.   The design is in keeping with the architectural style of the church.  Its gentle slop is now used by almost everyone!  

Sacristy   At some unknown date a small exterior storage area was added to the southwest corner of the church on the left side of the 5-sided chancel area.  In 2015 access was cut through from the chancel area to this storage room, and the exterior door blocked off.  This room now serves as a much needed sacristy with a sink and storage for altar hangings and communion elements. 

Parish House   In 1951 a home was purchased from the Hodgson family located at 48 Cameron Street in Columbia by the Rivanna Parish as the rectory for the rector of St. John’s, Columbia and Grace Church, Bremo Bluff, VA.  The rector served both parishes, alternating times of worship.  In the 1970s St. John’s and Grace Church, Bremo decided to go their separate ways, each finding their own clergy.  St. John’s acquired sole ownership of the rectory that was no longer needed for clergy housing.  It is now used as the parish house for parish events, and is periodically used by other community organizations.

Civil War History   Columbia was not the scene of any battles during the Civil War; therefore this church was never used as a hospital as some have thought.  There are no Confederate symbols or memorial plaques within the church.  Cemetery records indicate three church members served in the Confederacy, but neither died in the war:

Benjamin Rush Cowherd, the 15-year-old son of a St. John’s family, was a member of Mosby’s Rangers.

Eldridge Tucker Hughes served with the 4th Virginia Cavalry and was present at Appomattox at the surrender.


Fluvanna County Historical Society Bulletin #52, Fall 1991:  St. John’s an Episcopal Church for Columbia by Ellen Miyagawa

History of St. John’s by Leanora P. Stoneman

Letters and notes of Louis H. Stoneman

Rivanna Parish Register

St. John’s Church Records

St. John’s Church Vestry Meeting Minutes

Shared Memories