St. James Episcopal Church serves one of the oldest parishes in the state, and stands as a testament to the turbulent history of Wilmington. Originally built in 1770, the present structure was completed in 1840. Cornwallis occupied the first structure during the Revolutionary War, and Union forces converted the present structure into a field hospital during the Civil War. Aside from a passive role in Wilmington’s history, the churchyard contains the graves of several significant people.
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The church and its predecessor share a history that spans two centuries. The first building, a square structure with three entrances, was completed in 1770. It was designed in the Gregorian tradition, a combination of symmetry and simplicity common during the colonial period. During a ten month British occupation of Wilmington in 1781, Cornwallis ordered the church’s furniture removed and the structure served the army as an outpost, medical facility, and military training ground. In 1837 the vestry decided a new structure was needed to replace their outdated house of worship. The last service was held on March 24, 1839, the demolition occurring soon thereafter.
Construction of the new church began in 1839, with Philadelphian T.U. Walter as lead architect. Instead of following the plain style of its predecessor, the second structure was of Neo Gothic design. Consecrated in 1840, St. James would again be subjected to military occupation. In February 1865, the 104th Ohio Volunteers converted the church into a hospital, and church histories claim pews were removed with pickaxes in April of that year. Soon after the Civil War ended in April of 1865, St. James Church was repaired and back in use. Over the years, periodic improvements, such as a new roof, lighting systems, and an additional parish house were made possible by donations.
The church cemetery, dating back to 1781, contains several important figures in state history. Cornelius Harnett (1723-1781), champion of North Carolina’s Halifax Resolves, is buried in the graveyard. Poet Thomas Godfrey Jr. (1736-1763) is also interred on church grounds, although the gravestone was stolen during the nineteenth century.
Leora H. McEachern and Bill Reaves, History of St. James Parish, 1729-1979 (1985)
Ida B. Kellam and Elizabeth F. McKoy, eds., St. James Church, Wilmington, North Carolina: Historical Records, 1737-1892 (1965)
Donald R. Lennon and Ida B. Kellam, The Wilmington Tour Book, 1743-1778 (1973)
Lawrence F. London and Sarah M. Lemmon, The Episcopal Church in North Carolina, 1701-1959 (1987)
St. James Parish website: http://www.stjamesp.org/