Bells will be ringing in Shepherdstown on the day after Christmas. Jerry Bock and Bruce Massey of the Historic Shepherdstown Commission announce the Second-Annual “Shepherdstown Tour of Historic Churches”—to be held on Thursday, December 26, from 2-6pm.
Bells of the participating churches, as well as those of Shepherd University’s McMurran Hall, will all ring out to celebrate the opening of the tour. The self-guided walking tour will take about two hours, and all churches will have greeters and docents on hand.
“This is a non-religious tour focusing on history and architecture,” Bock explained. “All of the docents have knowledge of the history of the buildings and congregations. The tour gives the churches a chance to show off their buildings, and it’s timed so that visitors can see the churches decorated for Christmas. The tour starts at two so that people have two or three full hours of daylight to view the stained-glass windows.”
The War Memorial Building (102 E. German St.) will be tour headquarters, where visitors can pick up maps and refreshments are served, courtesy of the churches. All of the churches on the tour are in downtown Shepherdstown—including: Christ Reformed Church, Trinity Episcopal, New Street United Methodist, St. Peter’s Lutheran, Shepherdstown Presbyterian, and St. Agnes Catholic.
The historic cemetery of the Old English Church (Episcopal) is included on the tour as well, but only the exterior of the church itself may be viewed because it is now privately owned.
Massey reported that he is always asked which church is the oldest. “But what makes it complicated,” he said, “is the fact that different parts of churches were built at different times, and in some cases, the congregations were older than the churches. Christ Reformed’s bell tower might be the oldest structure. It had the largest bell, engraved with the date 1732. The square stone tower was part of an old church built in 1798. The church was originally log. Then they built the tower and tore the log church down and built the new church between the tower and the street in 1839.”
New Street United Methodist was originally built of wood but was rebuilt with brick after a fire in 1854. Like most of the town’s churches, it served as a hospital after the Civil War Battle of Antietam in 1862. After the war, the church split into northern and southern factions, and the Northern Methodists controlled the church. What is now the War Memorial Building was built in 1868 to house the Methodist Church South.
Bock noted that the Methodist Church doesn’t have stained-glass windows, “… but it has beautiful clear glass windows. They’re very tall, and the ceiling is very tall.”
Still in Use
Shepherdstown Presbyterian does not have the oldest building, but had the oldest congregation in town, chartered in 1743. A log church was built in the 1780s, replaced by a frame church destroyed by fire in 1834, and replaced again in 1836. It is a plain brick building with a belfry and cupola. It was the largest building in town during the Battle of Antietam and served as a hospital.
St. Peter’s Lutheran is the oldest Lutheran church in West Virginia. The congregation met in homes from 1765 until a brick church was built in 1795, and enlarged and remodeled in 1868. The present Gothic limestone church was dedicated in 1908, and a bell from the old church was installed. An escutcheon (lock plate) made in 1795 by a local locksmith was also installed.
St. Agnes Catholic Church is a modern church, dedicated in 2008. It is in the shape of a mandorla, the overlapping central space of two concentric circles, described by early Christians as the space between the divine and human. Notable is a sliding wall of etched glass depicting figures from scripture, the church history, parish, and town. Catholics have lived in the area since the mid-1700s, and this is their third church, but the site of the first is unknown. The small but beautiful St. Agnes Chapel, which was replaced by the new church, is on the tour. It is still used for weddings and other occasions.
Trinity Episcopal was first built of logs in 1745 as First English Church, and rebuilt of stone in 1769 near the present location. The present Gothic style, a gray native-limestone church, was built in 1858. When local churches were used as hospitals after the Battle of Antietam, Trinity was chosen to stay open as a place of worship for troops of both sides. Notable is an 1869 organ purchased in 1972, restored in 1993 and described by the restorer as “possibly the finest organ restoration we have ever done.”