A MISSION -The first service of the St. Martin’s congregation took place on September 23, 1963, when about forty men and women gathered in the old tower church on Jamestown Island to worship as a new mission of the Diocese of Southern Virginia. Officiating at the service were Bishop George P. Gunn and Suffragan Bishop David S. Rose, who were assisted by the mission’s appointed vicar, the Reverend William Egelhoff. Also in attendance was the Reverend Cotesworth P. Lewis, rector of Bruton Parish Church.
The Rev. Egelhoff and the tiny congregation shared an ambitious vision. They would observe the Eucharist every Sunday and maintain closeness by holding only one service each week. Each Sunday after the service, they would hold a congregational meeting to encourage discussion, friendship, and to determine needs of the community.
At a time when schools and businesses were segregated by race, the church would embrace people of all races, backgrounds, ages, and abilities. As for giving to charity, the congregation at St. Martin’s would take a radical stand: they would give away half of all their proceeds.
Such fifty-fifty giving required discipline. The church facility and services would have to be simple, with no expensive furnishings and no vestments for lay readers and the choir. Lay participation would be essential: altar flowers and the Eucharistic bread and wine would be brought from home, and all maintenance and upkeep would be done by lay volunteers.
In keeping with this commitment to service and simplicity, the congregation chose to name their church after St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, who is best known for giving half his cloak to a beggar.
BUILDING A CHURCH
After holding a few more services on Jamestown Island, the congregation moved to the basement of the Heritage Inn in Williamsburg, where members took turns each week converting a Saturday night bar into a space for Sunday worship. This site was only temporary, since Bruton Parish Church (through the Diocese) had donated four and one-half acres of property on Jamestown Road where a new church could be built.
After discussing the type of building that would best suit St. Martin’s, the congregation settled on a simple structure made of pre-fabricated steel that could be erected simply. On Easter Sunday, 1964, after much hard work, the first worship service was held in the new building, which the congregation would later refer to as “the blue barn.”
In this open building, both worship services and meetings could be held in the same space through the use of folding chairs. The congregation faced the altar during worship, then turned in the other direction for meetings, creating a distinction between the holy hour of worship and the discussion afterwards.
The arrangement worked well—for awhile. But as the membership grew, more space was needed. The answer would be to build a frame structure alongside the barn to accommodate six classrooms and an office. This structure, later called “the zig-zag building,” was dedicated on February 2, 1967. The following year, a bell tower was constructed to house a bell that had been donated by Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in the nearby town of Norge. In the summer of 1975, members began creating a memorial garden at the base of this bell tower where ashes of deceased members could be placed.
AN EARLY COMMITMENT TO OUTREACH
The scope of outreach projects in our first two decades was impressive. In response to a clear need in the community, we opened a preschool for children with special needs that met in the original Sunday School building. By 1970, the preschool had outgrown its small space and was moved to another site in town. Today, that preschool has become Child Development Resources, an internationally recognized center for children with a variety of special needs. In the same year the preschool moved off site from St. Martin’s, we held a fundraising drive to create residential homes for troubled boys; the result was a residential treatment program called Teen Homes. Today, Teen Homes, now called Crossroads, is an established rehabilitation home for teenagers that has been in existence for over thirty years.
Our commitment to outreach at St. Martin’s was also expressed in our willingness to open our church buildings for community use seven days a week. From the beginning, we opened our doors to Alcoholics Anonymous. Other groups that have held meetings or rented space at St. Martin’s have included the Boy Scouts, the Association of Retarded Citizens, and the Williamsburg Choral Guild.
St. Martin’s also became host to a new child care program called the Williamsburg Area Day CareCenter, which served from thirty to sixty children and later moved on. The church then provided space for an innovative parent cooperative preschool for children between the ages of two and four which was looking for a new home. The new Williamsburg Cooperative Preschool modeled good parenting skills and early childhood education for about a hundred families each year (about 10 percent of whom are on scholarship). Today, many adults share cherished memories of going to “Co-op” at St. Martin’s, and the symbiotic relationship between the church and the preschool continues to thrive.
BEYOND THE BLUE BARN
By 1972, membership at St. Martin’s had grown significantly—too many for the blue barn—so it was time to build a sanctuary. The new building, completed and dedicated in the spring, was set on a slope, with large, clear windows to give the feeling of worshiping within nature. Once again, chairs were used instead of pews, and they were arranged in a semi-circle around the altar. The altar itself, along with a large cross behind it, was hand-crafted by two members of the church.
Growth forced the St. Martin’s congregation to look again at its founding principles. It had become apparent that fifty-percent giving was impossible, so the vestry voted to abandon the concept while remaining fully committed to outreach. The congregation then began a search for a new rector, as the Rev. Egelhoff had moved on.
The Parish was first served by the Rev. Michael Mohn and then by the Rev. Arthur Willis. In March 1975, the Parish installed the Rev. J. Pickett Miles, who would serve the congregation for the next twenty nine years. Also in 1975, St. Martin’s (as a mission church) was officially designated a Parish by the Diocese of Southern Virginia.
A MATURING ACTIVE PARISH
The new rector oversaw a progression of creative problem solving and active service. With a rising number of pledging members, we were now a true parish. To accommodate our growing numbers, we moved from one worship service to three—a Rite I service at 8 a.m. and Rite II services at 9 and 11 a.m.
Pickett had a passion for training new clergy. During the 1980s, St. Martin’s became part of a ministry exploration program that brought inquiring men and women into the congregation, at least eight of whom went on to become ordained.
Our worship programs also expanded to include healing. In the summer of 1988, after reading Your Healing Is Within You, Pickett invited the book’s author, Canon Jim Glennon of Australia, to visit St. Martin’s to preach and lecture. Canon Glennon’s first services took place in October of that year, and they were widely attended. He returned in 1989 and 1990. His visits helped to launch our healing ministry, which still continues today.
While Pickett was drawn to the healing ministry, he was also moved to work for improved race relations. In 1999, he established relationships with pastors at traditionally African-American churches in Williamsburg, and the following year, he created an informal partnership with another mostly African-American congregation, St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Hampton. Two pulpit exchanges took place, and parishioners from both churches engaged in talks and shared services. Pickett also publicly signed the Birmingham Pledge to end racism, and many other members followed suit.
THE CHALLENGE OF GROWTH
By 1986, it had become apparent that a new building would be needed in the future. A certificate of deposit for $12,000 was taken out in August as the beginning of a building fund. It would take eight more years for our congregation to commit to the enormous challenge of raising money for added space—a parish hall, kitchen, offices, library, choir room, and space to be shared by both Sunday School and the “Co-op.”
Through a variety of fundraising projects, we were able to raise $83,295, setting the design-build process in motion. By December, 1997, we hired an architect. Four years later, we dedicated our new parish building in a special Sunday service. The final cost: $2 million.
The construction process wasn’t easy. Besides cost overruns, we endured flooding in the lower level and struggled with bad acoustics in the Parish Hall. But our parish endured. With prayer and patience, we were able to correct the problems that caused flooding and added acoustic panels to the parish hall.
Our growth in numbers not only created a need for more space, however. Growth had also put increased pressure on a single clergyman who needed help. In 1990, we hired Betty Long, an assisting clergy person. Later we enjoyed the contributions of other clergy assistants and deacons, including retired priests who had relocated to the Williamsburg area. Some of these assistants continue to serve our parish today.
INTERIM: ST. MARTIN’S IN TRANSITION
Our interim period following the tenure of Pickett Miles was filled with a range of experiences. During this three-year transition period, June 2004 – July, 2007, we were served by two Interim Clergy, Mary Hansley and Peter Hogg. Church attendance and income dropped during the first eighteen transition months but each grew steadily after September 2005. Staff changes during the transition time included the Director of Christian Education, Ann Meyer; Music Director, Phaedra McNorton; and Parish Administrator, Tim Terry. We were fortunate to have the services of Deacon Kathy Gray and retired clergy during our transition.
CONTINUED GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT IN ALL AREAS
The Rev. Shirley Smith Graham became rector during July, 2007. In fact, she officiated at a funeral before her contract began! Among Shirley’s early accomplishments were holding neighborhood meetings and conducting leadership training classes. Adult Formation opportunities expanded, including quarterly Deep Dives and a series on Discerning Our Gifts. The Order of St. Luke, the Brotherhood of St. Andrew and Stephen Ministry which she co-lead, were established at St. Martin’s. Christian Formation for Youth became larger as well as increased Sunday School attendance and a third J2A (Journey to Adulthood) Pilgrimage. The Stewardship program developed a year-round focus. A Nominating Committee was established. New outreach efforts included establishing From His Hand, a feeding program; increased giving to the diocese; our participation in the community's Winter Shelter program; and more sharing of our facilities with community groups. Shirley established a process for incorporating newcomers into the life of the church. A five-year plan called Forward in Faith focused the vestry on future needs of the parish. Shirley collaborated in the publication of a book, The Unlikely Chosen, and was also profiled in a recent publication (September 2011) by Judith Maxwell McDaniel, GRACE in Motion: The Intersection of Women's Ordination and Virginia Theological Seminary. Thoroughly grasping the value of modern technology and new communication tools, the church made great strides in its efforts to meet the needs of all current and potential members, introducing a weekly electronic newsletter, Threads, as well as Twitter and Facebook.New approaches and innovative programs were created and nurtured by a church / community partnership helping to meet the pastoral care needs of our population.Shirley oversaw the expansion of the Memorial Garden (description follows). During this period the congregation generously responded to the call to raise additional funds to completely retire its mortgage on the building expansion begun in 1997. We celebrated the successful retirement of the mortgage in August of 2015.
EXPANSION OF THE BELL TOWER MEMORIAL GARDEN
Bell Tower Memorial Garden
Pet committal Area
Memorial Garden raised planter
At St. Martin’s Church, we’re blessed not only with the physical presence of those living but also a beautiful memorial garden which helps us honor and remember those persons who have entered into God’s glory.
The Bell Tower was erected in 1968 with a bell donated by Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Norge. The first ashes were committed at the Bell Tower in 1975. Our Bell Tower Memorial Garden was established with the purpose that, for little or no cost, people associated with the life of St. Mar-tin's Church could have their ashes committed to the ground or sprinkled in a holy place that would remain at the heart of the community.
Thirty eight years later it became time to expand to make more room. The vestry acted on our commitment to be a place of hospitality, not only for those seated in the church on Sunday morning but also those already gathered in the communion of All Saints. Framed by the original Bell Tower and the steps leading to La Tien-da, the Peace Garden now offers a Common Committal Ground (CCG) artfully decorated with succulent plants. Pavers laid around the CCG create a patio-like area where people may stand when we do a committal ceremony or enjoy peaceful, contemplative solitude.
Our history is rich, and it has much to teach us. Since our first meetings in the old church on Jamestown Island, we’ve looked for ways to reach out to the community and serve Christ faithfully and creatively. We’ve built new buildings, taken down old ones, and made adjustments along the way. We seek to do God’s work as we are called, remembering the words affixed to the pulpit in our sanctuary: “We would see Jesus.”