“O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.” Psalm 26:8 NRSV
The establishment of Calvary Parish dates to 1742, when construction of a small wooden building was envisioned near what is now called Chapel Springs, about eight miles northwest of present day Tarboro. George II was on the throne of England, and this region was part of the English Royal Colony of North Carolina, presided over by a Royal Governor. The little church building, named Saint Mary’s, was, of course, Anglican, and the rector, the Rev. James Moir, reported directly to the Bishop of London. Completed in 1747, it served a small congregation until around 1760 when it burned.
Following the fire, the little congregation moved into the newly established town of Tarborough. Services were conducted in a variety of places, including private homes. Following the American Revolution, the town confiscated the primary place of worship, a secular building (no longer standing) near the corner of Saint James and Saint Patrick Streets. That parish was called Trinity. The congregation, already small, began to dwindle further. After the American Revolution, worship along Anglican lines using a Book of Common Prayer, (in which a prayer was required for a reigning British monarch) was considered treasonous within the newly formed Republic. Yet the Anglican form and tradition, (sans the prayer for the monarch) continued with only a few individuals in what is now called the Episcopal Church.
Then the name of the parish changed; and led by the Rev. William Norwood, The Act of Incorporation of Calvary Parish was drawn up and signed by 17 lay men and one woman. The Act reads: “We whose names are hereunder written do consent to form ourselves into an Episcopal Congregation to be designated: the Congregation of Calvary Church, Tarborough. We do further consent to adopt and to be governed by the Constitution and Canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of North Carolina.” Calvary Parish was admitted promptly into union with the Diocese of North Carolina on May 29, 1833, which is considered the date of its founding. Andrew Jackson was in the White House and William IV was on the British throne.
Soon thereafter, the congregation began to grow; adjoining lots conveyed as gifts formed the present grounds, bound by Church, Panola, East Saint James, and Saint David Streets. Two church buildings have stood on these grounds, which comprise roughly a city block or two acres. The first—a wooden structure completed and consecrated in 1840—stood within the southwest quadrant of the churchyard. It was deconsecrated in 1929 and later razed. The present Gothic Revival church building, designed by Englishman William Percival and built by Thomas Coats, also an Englishman, was begun in 1858, completed in 1867, and consecrated in 1868. Only 33 communicants comprised the Parish at that time, yet the far-reaching vision of Calvary’s third rector, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Blount Cheshire insisted on a church building that would accommodate 500. The total cost was approximately $25,000. Victoria was the reigning British monarch, and Andrew Johnson, upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, had become President of the United States.
The original furnishings in the chancel remain: the Altar, the Bishop’s Chair, the Deacon’s Chair, and the Acolyte Stalls. All are believed to have been fashioned from oak left from building the Confederate Ram Albemarle. The original lectern and pulpit within the chancel are now in use within All Saints’ Chapel. The oil burning standing lamps within the nave, modified slightly and electrified around 1900, are original. The pews also are original. Memorials of all kinds, including the lectern, pulpit, and windows fill the church building. Large memorials include the Joseph Blount Cheshire Memorial Parish House, All Saints’ Chapel, the Cloister, and the gated wall around the Churchyard.
The Churchyard is, in itself, a memorial to generations upon generations of both Calvary parishioners and friends. Its many gravesites and markers, including those of statesmen, armed services men and women, clergy, and other folk, draw people from around the nation who are searching for connections and ties. Names that ring like bells in North Carolina history can be found on gravesite markers. The Churchyard remains an active burial ground. The grounds, containing exotic and native trees, as well as shrubs and ivy, are regarded by many as a grand arboretum. It was planned and planted initially by the Rev. Dr. Cheshire. Both the building and grounds are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and the building itself is a designated Historic Living Church.
Led by Calvary’s ninth rector, the Rev. Bertram E. Brown, the Joseph Blount Cheshire Memorial Parish House and All Saints’ Chapel, both designed by Richard Upjohn, were completed in 1923. The Cloister and gated walls enclosing the Churchyard were finished in 1926. The present Rectory on Saint Patrick Street dates to around 1938. With the guidance and direction of the Rev. John Shelby Spong, fourteenth rector, Memorial Hall, situated across Church Street from the Parish House, was completed in 1960. Adjacent to Memorial Hall and also facing Church Street, The Matthewson House (circa 1869), along with abutting acreage running eastward to Panola Street, was acquired by Calvary Parish in 2014. These structures and lands complete the buildings and grounds of Calvary.
A succession of interior and exterior modifications to Calvary’s buildings have occurred over the years. Stained glass windows are perhaps the most visible enhancement. The east end of the church building was expanded with the addition of the two rooms on either side of the apse, and the chancel was extended into the nave. Organ and console placements have had a number of arrangements through the years. Access for the disabled was created recently at the south door of the church building, as well as of the Parish House south door and the south door of All Saints’ Chapel.
Two natural disasters created the need for restoration. In 1994-1995, the steeple with its cross were rebuilt following heavy damage during a severe storm. The Parish House, which had undergone major renovations during the mid-1980s under the leadership of Calvary’s seventeenth rector, the Rev. Douglas E. Remer, was restored following the 1999 flood of Hurricane Floyd, as was All Saints’ Chapel. Memorial Hall was also repaired and renovated extensively in the aftermath of Floyd.
Renovations and restoration during 2008 and 2009 included re-pointing the brick exteriors of the church and Parish House. The church interior received enhanced lighting and new wainscoting, the pews were raised and restored to their former luster, and the chancel flooring and steps were replaced. Further, the south porch was restored, as was the entryway and stairway to the west loft and the loft itself. Finally, the standing lamps, sconces, and major brass appointments within the entire church building were cleaned and anodized. That effort was led by Calvary’s eighteenth rector, the Rev. William E. Smyth.
Since its founding, Calvary has reached out extensively to the immediate community and surrounding county. In 1870, Saint Luke’s Mission congregation was formed from the African-American membership of Calvary. That congregation worshipped in the original wooden church building, mentioned previously, until 1890 when Calvary’s Vestry authorized the purchase of land with Panola Street frontage one block south of Calvary. The present Saint Luke’s Church was built in 1892. The two congregations share clergy and occasions throughout the year for worship and fellowship.
Beginning in the early 1900s and continuing for decades thereafter, approximately a dozen Episcopal missions throughout Edgecombe County were organized and administered. Further, Calvary—through a rudimentary soup kitchen, pantry, and modest funding—was instrumental in founding what has since become Tarboro Community Outreach. Moreover, by providing use of its facilities, Calvary continues to support cultural arts programs, other church congregations, and a variety of community projects.
Since 1833, Calvary has been led by 19 rectors. It has hosted many seminary students and transitional deacons, has produced a number of vocational deacons, many priests, and four bishops. First as Trinity, then as Calvary, it has hosted five Diocesan conventions (1790, 1793, 1794, 1938, and most recently during 1960.) Upon the celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Episcopalians in North Carolina (1987), Calvary hosted the celebratory event attended by the then Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Edmund Browning. From its establishment in 1742 through its founding in 1833 to the present, Calvary Parish has been a venerable place of worship, a great presence within the community and surrounding area. It is a “goodly heritage.” (Psalm 16:6 NRSV)
The “goodly heritage” we have received continues today in and around our Historic Living Church. We worship, study, and enjoy fellowship together in ways which both nurture our faith and serve our community. Just as in generations past, our historic buildings and grounds and their walkways resound with the footsteps and voices of happy children and adults. This gracious and sacred place continues to welcome both parishioners and guests into God’s holy Presence.
Thomas Price Miller