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The Beginnings

In 1850, Somerset County was a rural area, with farming as a main industry. Rich in Revolutionary War history, Somerset County was attractive to long-established families and immigrants alike.


Although the region was still largely rural, mills had been established, and with the mills came jobs, and with jobs came people. For example, Raritan Woolen Mills in Raritan was a major employer with upwards of 600 workers.


In those pre-Civil War days of 1850, Somerville was the county seat, and boasted a thriving downtown district where people flocked and gathered for wares and goods, as well as friendship and fellowship.


In this atmosphere of prosperity and growing population, the need for an Episcopal presence in Somerville was recognized. Christ Church, New Brunswick – the “mother church” of central New Jersey – looked to plant a congregation in Somerset County.


According to the well-known Snell’s History Book, “Services of the Episcopal Church had been occasionally given at Somerville by the Rev. Alfred Stubbs of New Brunswick previous to 1850 but no clergyman had undertaken to form a parish and to build a church in the place before the summer of that year”.


July 1850 saw the beginnings of St. John’s. Snell’s reports that the Rev. John Rowland, “having been recently ordained by the bishop of the Diocese, was sent as a missionary of the church.”


St. John’s was born! However, St. John’s wasn’t born on West High Street. Rather, the notice of the organizational meeting was written by the Rev. John Rowland and posted on the Somerset County Courthouse on Main Street. “The use of the courthouse was granted, and divine services were regularly held every Sunday.” states early historical papers of the church. On July 31, 1851 the parish was incorporated by the name of “Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of St. John’s Church, Somerville, New Jersey.”


The wardens at the time of the incorporation were: Richard B. Duyckinck and Joshua Doughty. Vestry members were: Isaac R. Cornell (who owned a sizable farm near Millstone), William Thomson (who was clerk of the vestry), Albert Cammann, E. R. Codwise, and Edward Perry.


Rowland was born in Wales in 1811, educated at Cambridge, came to America in 1841 and was ordained in 1850. As the first Rector of St. John’s. Rowland also was affectionately known as “Domine,” which is a Dutch word for teacher and was widely used by the Reformed Church in reference to their ministers. Many St. John’s parishioners adopted this affect and addressed their rector as “Domine“.


The exact reason for choosing “John” as the name for the new Episcopal Church has been lost to history. Some say it was because it was a common name, but there are others who point out that John was Domine Rowland’s first name!


Now that the congregation was established, it didn’t take long for the dream of an Episcopal Church structure – steeple and all – to come to fruition. The first church, located on the same site on tree lined West High Street as today, was a small wooden edifice with a tall steeple built at a cost of $3,280. The land had been donated by Joshua Doughty, a church warden and a well-respected local leader who lived at the south end of the nearby street that today bears his name.


On September 4, 1851, in a celebration of note, the cornerstone of the original church was laid by Bishop George Washington Doane, the Bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey. Bishop Doane was not only the leader of our Diocese, but he was a national leader in his own right, known mostly for his dedication and promotion of lifelong education for children and adults.


This first church was completed eight months later, with the consecration of the new church conducted on May 28, 1852. When St. John’s was admitted to the Episcopal Diocese as a parish in 1852, the Diocese encompassed all of the state of New Jersey and boasted 3,154 communicants.


From the beginning, St. John’s was blessed as the recipient of many gifts. In addition to the generous gift of land on West High Street, one of the first gifts to the church was the baptismal font, presented by the Rev. Dr. Creighton of Tarrytown, New York who, 40 years previously, had attended school in Somerville. The original organ was a gift from twin sisters Mrs. S. V. Hoffman and Mrs. R. J. Livingston of New Brunswick. The surplices were ordered from England and were presented to the parish by the ladies of the congregation.


The dream of an Episcopal Church in Somerville had come true. And the new Episcopal Church immediately showed signs of welcome and acceptance in the area. In fact, by 1853, St. John’s boasted 24 families!


The Early Years

After planting a new church in Somerville and establishing a foothold for its congregation, Domine Rowland departed from St. John’s in 1854 to answer a call in the Diocese of Louisiana. Assuming the rectorship was The Rev. James H. Black..


Private papers of Mr. and Mrs. George Thomson revealed a letter to Col. William Thomas dated April 13, 1855 in which Black write, “I accept the call which I received through you to St. John’s Church, Somerville and by Divine presumption will enter upon my duties as Rector of the Parish.”


Black lead the congregation until 1858, at which time The Rev. James Thomson ministered to the needs of Episcopalians in the Somerville area. (Rev. Thomson was no relation to St. John’s original vestryman William Thomson.) Thomson remained until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.


During the Civil War years, St. John’s was served by various supply priests and the Rev. William H. Badger from 1864-1867. But the Civil War, which devastated our young country, had an obvious deleterious effect on St. John’s, too. In 1867, Domine Rowland returned to the church he had so lovingly nurtured in its early years. History records that Domine found the front door of the church hanging half off, which may have been an indication of the poor spiritual health of the congregation.


However, after Domine Rowland returned, St. John’s was back on a roll. In fact, St. John’s flourished. The report to the Diocese of New Jersey in 1875 indicated that St. John’s celebrated a total of 11 baptisms and 10 confirmations during the previous year. “The church grows, and is prospering,” the Diocesan report stated.


In 1875, New Jersey was divided into two Episcopal Dioceses. St. John’s remained in the Diocese of New Jersey, and that year reported 80 communicants, reflecting 1% of the Diocese of New Jersey’s 7,071 members.


The entire area also witnessed expansive growth during this time; Snell’s History indicates that the population of Somerville in 1880 had swelled to a previously un-heard of 3,108!


A sad day in the history of St. John’s was marked on January 6, 1889, the day that Domine Rowland died. As an indication of his impact on many lives and his stature in the community, when Rowland died, his memorial sermon, given by the Rev. William Robert Harris, was printed in full in the local newspaper. Harris called Rowland “very eccentric in his manner and mode of life, but a very polished scholar and a profound and well-read theologian.” Today we remember Rowland in the beautiful stained glass window to the right of the altar, which is dedicated to his memory.


Around that time, the Rev. Mr. Harris, who also served as priest-in-charge of St. Paul’s, Bound Brook, took a long, close look and examined the church structure of the 40+ year old wooden building. What he discovered was that being small was not St. John’s only problem: it was also in dire need of extensive repairs. That’s when he started the planning for a new church.


But funds were short and tight. In fact Harris, hired for $1000 a year, often did not receive the agreed-upon amount. In 1892, he received only $790 of his pay, and in 1893, $875.


By the time The Rev. Benjamin Wright was called to St. John’s in 1894, the financial picture had improved. Additionally, assistance for the new church was provided through a generous grant from J. Harper Smith, a local philanthropist whose generosity to St. John’s, as well as other local institutions was felt for many years.


By January 1895, the vestry hired a well-known Philadelphia architect, Horace Trumbauer, to build a church that would cost nearly $14,000. Trumbauer is considered a major architect of his time, and his works include the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


June 6, 1895 saw the beginning of the work on the new structure, in the same location as the original. The new church building – our present structure – was completed and the first service celebrated in it on January 25, 1896 with Bishop Scarborough in attendance.


In February 1896, the vestry decided to take a bold step and install electricity in the church. However, this move was not without controversy. In May, a local business – Somerset Lighting Company – submitted a bill for $52.50 for the work, which the vestry deemed “exorbitant”. Instead, the vestry offered $25. After much squabbling, the agreed upon amount was indeed $25! After that, the light shone bright in the church.


Christmas 1897 featured a choir of 18 sopranos and altos, and 11 tenors and bassos, under the direction of Arthur G. Drake, organist. This represented impressive growth, as the first vested choir was organized at St. John’s only two years prior.


The January 8, 1898 report to the church noted a debt of $7,373.07 needed to pay for the church remodeling and mortgage on the rectory. “If every member of the parish would pay 62 cents per month, for three years, the debt would be wiped out,” suggested vestry member H. K. Gaston.

A New Century, A New Church

A new century! America was just recovering from the Spanish-American War when everyone “Remembered the Main”. William McKinley was President of the United States and patriotism ran high.


While the style of living in 1900 was far different from today, the needs and wants of the people were remarkably similar. Citizens then, just like now, displayed their love of family, love of home, and love of church. It was a time when people were active through fraternal organizations, religious groups, or literary societies.


In Somerset County, Somerville was a very contemporary community. Main Street was an avenue of commerce, lined with stores, services, and entertainment. The municipality was still part of Bridgewater Township, as the incorporation of the borough was still 10 years in the future. Since the Civil War, the town had sprouted around the courthouse. Somerville was a stagecoach stop and, in 1900, the town boasted three newspapers, a thriving railroad station, a major shopping district and lots of entertainment. People traveled from neighboring hamlets and villages on the trolleys, and the train service linked Somerville to New York, Trenton, Philadelphia, and all points.


St. John’s was experiencing record growth, renewal, and prosperity, too. In 1900, St. John’s Report to the Diocese noted 139 “families and parts of families” with 16 baptisms and 12 confirmations.


St. John’s new church was consecrated on December 12, 1901 by Bishop John Scarborough, and it was debt free!


In 1902, The Rev. Charles Fiske was called as rector. He was known as a tireless worker and a prolific writer, his spiritual nature was evidenced by the church’s growth during his rectorship. The church flourished under his leadership, with three services at 8 am, 10:30 am, and 4 pm with Church School at 2:30 pm.


During Fiske’s tenure, parishioner Henry Atwater Smith, who was serving as senior warden, died at the young age of 43. His father, J. Harper Smith (who had contributed to the construction of the church a decade earlier) offered to build the rectory in his memory. The property adjacent to the church was purchased for $8,250. Trumbauer, greatly admired for his design of the church, was hired as the architect for the rectory, built for $18,000.


Fiske left St. John’s in 1908 and later became Bishop of the Diocese of Central New York. His successor, the Rev. C.C. Silvester, wrote of Fiske, “His Rectorship was conspicuous in the developing of the spiritual life of the parish. There were larger confirmation classes, increased services, and lately, with Granville Smith as organist, a very high class of music.”


At this time, there was growth and new buildings everywhere! Somerville School Building #1 on High Street was built in 1904. The majestic, white-marble Somerset County Courthouse opened its doors in 1907. On May 4, 1909 a special election approved incorporation, and Somerville became a borough.


The Somerville area experienced a great influx of immigration during the early 1900s, primarily workers in the mills. The Somerset County population doubled between 1900 and 1930 especially in Somerville, Bound Brook, Manville and Raritan. Movies arrived in Somerville with the opening of the Bijou Theatre at 65 West Main Street in 1911, followed by the Regent Theater which offered vaudeville and more sophisticated films. Johns-Manville, a leader in employment and industry, opened in 1912. In 1913, New Jersey’s own Woodrow Wilson was sitting in the White House.


The United States entered World War I in 1917, causing Americans to experience wartime shortages of fuel and other necessities. But the local economy was booming. As part of the war effort, both Johns-Manville and Calco, two major employers, went non-stop, operating 24 hours a day.


Silvester led St. John’s through 1918, at which point The Rev. Charles Thacker Pfeiffer was called. His arrival was announced in the local newspaper, complete with a photo, revealing he was born in Philadelphia and graduated from General Theological Seminary int he class of 1901.


The 1920’s saw many generous gifts and, once again, Mr. & Mrs. J. Harper Smith demonstrated their commitment to the local Episcopal Church when the Parish House was bestowed to St. John’s by Mrs. Smith in memory of her husband; the consecration was held in September 1924.


The year 1924 saw another important milestone in the life of St. John’s. It was that year that the Rev. Ernest Pugh was called to St. John’s as rector, a post he would hold for 20 years. Some of our parishioners today remember that he was affectionately known by the moniker “Fa’ Pugh.”


There was much happening in Somerville, in the country, and in the world-at- large during the years of Fa’ Pugh’s leadership. The eyes of the world turned to Somerset County for the sensational six-week Hall-Mills murder trial in 1926. By 1930, the population of Somerset County was 65,000. In 1936, the world watched as Bruno Hauptmann was convicted in nearby Flemington of kidnapping and killing the Lindbergh baby. War raged in Europe in 1939 and in 1941 the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ushered the way for the United States to enter WWII.


At St. John’s, the parishioners rolled up their sleeves and did their part for the war effort while Fa’Pugh provided spiritual guidance throughout the dark days of World War II.

The Second Half of the Century

World War II was over, and the boom was on!

The United States in general and Somerset County in particular experienced heretofore unknown expansion in all facets of society – economy, housing, and, most significantly, the population, which doubled in the county between 1940 and 1960.

Growth was evident at St. John’s too!

Fa’ Pugh, retired in 1944, and was succeeded by the Rev. Hollis S. Smith ( no relation to J. Harper Smith). Smith had spent many years as a missionary to China, and he is fondly remembered by many of our parishioners. The growth he sparked at St. John’s was evident in people and in buildings alike. Over his 21 years, there were the redecoration of the church nave, the installation of six stained glass windows, a new Baptistery, a new heating system, and Sunday School classrooms in the basement.


In October 5, 1952, the Centennial of St. John’s was celebrated with a grand ceremony led by Bishop Wallace Gardner and Fr. Smith. During the service, the bishop blessed and dedicated four new stained glass windows, memorials to the late Mr. and Mrs. J. Harper Smith who had been so generous to St. John’s and other community endeavors. The donation had been made by Mrs. C. R. Williams of Minneapolis, the daughter-in-law of the Smiths and a parishioner of St. John’s


In 1959 the Church’s expanded Parish Hall was dedicated.

Somerset County was growing with the 1960 census topping 144,000 citizens. As a nation, we celebrated in 1962 with John Glenn as the first American to orbit the earth, we mourned in 1963 at the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and we sang with the Beatles when they arrived in American in 1964.


The year 1965 saw Smith’s retirement and the arrival of a new young priest – The Rev. David A. Stowe, who would minister to the people in the greater Somerset area for over 30 years.


In 1967, a parishioner, Bernard T. Bruckner, bequeathed his estate, both farm and greenhouse, to St. John’s. Bruckner lived near Pluckemin, and he frequently walked to church and back. The vestry established an endowment fund to be used for capital improvements and gifts to local social service agencies.


St. John’s assisted in the stretching of the Episcopal Diocese, too. In 1968, St. John’s and St. Paul’s, Bound Brook, jointly sponsored a mission in Martinsville. The congregation was placed under the sponsorship of St. John’s in 1973. Its growth and renewal were evident when, ten years later, St. Martin’s would be named a parish in the Diocese of New Jersey.


Under Stowe, the 1970s saw changes in the face of St. John’s. There was an extensive interior renovation to the church in 1971 which entailed moving the altar. In 1977, a new organ was installed.


Another major growth spurt was experienced in 1987 when the Undercroft (chapel, columbarium, meeting rooms, and office) was renovated with dedication by Bishop Mellick Belshaw.


Stowe, highly respected throughout the area and on the diocesan level, led the St. John’s congregation in the establishment and growth of many organizations, including ECW, Men’s Club, Daughters of the King, Bible Study, and others.


After 31 years of dedicated and devoted service, Stowe retired in 1996 and moved to Pennsylvania. Following his departure, St. John’s entered a transitional period with the Rev. Alice Downs serving as interim rector.


In 1998, the church called The Rev. Ronald Neal Pollock as its 16th rector to help guide us in our life with Christ, our commitment to our community, and into the new millennium.


Today, the community of St. John’s boasts 330 families and individuals, and supports many ministries which open our doors to all. As we near the 170th Anniversary of our founding, there is no doubt that the shadows of Rowland, Doane, Duycknick, Doughtry, Cornell, Thomson, Cammann, Codwise and Perry and many others are with us today. And, there is no doubt they would be proud of today’s St. John’s Episcopal Church and ministry of its people.