In 1763, the people of Eastchester, New York began building the present stone and brick church building of St. Paul’s. It was an upgrade, a replacement for a small, square wooden meetinghouse building, which stood about 60-80 yards west of the current church. The wooden meeting house had been in use since 1700, and by the 1760s, Eastchester was a larger, wealthier town, deserving a more substantial building for public use. It was also the end of the French and Indian War, a time of great celebration, optimism and wealth in the colonies, with the long-dreaded French rivals vanquished from North America. The new church was partly a celebration of that momentous victory of England and her colonies over France.
The first church was built by the town when the residents were dissenters, Puritans who opposed the Church of England, or the Anglican Church. But the British, in an effort to more effectively manage the Royal Colony of New York, legally established the Anglican Church in Westchester County in 1702. Town residents had to accept this new form of church administration, and pay the salaries of ministers assigned to the parish by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. By 1763, Eastchester was more firmly an Anglican parish.
Design of the church was inspired by the edifices built around London following the Great Fire of 1666, where the principal architect was Christopher Wren. Books with sketches and diagrams based on the construction of some of those churches were available in colonial New York. Local masons helped to build the church along with craftsmen from New York City who would live in the area for months, boarding with Eastchester families. Stones were drawn from the local fields (hence the contemporary term, “fieldstone”), while bricks were also local, probably molded from clay deposits along the Hudson River. Mortar was a proscribed combination of water, sand and lime as the bonding agent, with quantities mixed in a pit at the southern edge of the Green. As a public project of the town, funds were drawn from regular taxation revenues, and supplemented with lotteries.
A large undertaking for a relatively small town, the church was not complete when the political and military disruption of the American Revolution rocked the area, halting construction. On the eve of the war, most of the exterior was in place, and the tower had been erected about 2/3 of the way to the present steeple, but the interior was little more than a dirt floor. The community was still worshipping in the wooden meetinghouse. Yet, even in its unfinished form, the church was the largest, best built, centrally located building in the vicinity, and since it was unlocked and unused during the War for American Independence, it became the obvious location for a field hospital during local campaigns. It was used by the American, British and Hessian armies. The need for firewood as fuel by those forces led to the complete disassembling of the older meetinghouse by the war’s conclusion.
At the return of peace in 1783, town residents, now Americans and no longer British colonists, resumed construction and by 1787-8 they had completed the building for use as a house of worship and courthouse. Sales to individual families of space beneath the private, high-walled pew boxes were an important source of income used to cover final construction costs. It was officially named St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in 1795, and a ceiling and interior plaster on the walls was added in the early 1800s. In 1805, after completion of the balcony, it was consecrated, and remained a house of worship through the late 1970s. The Federal Government accepted the church and grounds as a gift from the Episcopal Diocese in 1980.
In 1942 the church was restored to resemble its original 18th century appearance by Perry, Shaw & Hepburn, the architectural firm that had developed Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The church had undergone many changes in the intervening years. The pulpit had been moved from the south to the east wall. The pews had been turned to face east, and then replaced with benches. The altar had emerged as a more important focus of the service than the pulpit. Clear glass windows had been removed and traded for stained glass honoring the town’s prominent families. The walls and (tin) ceiling were stenciled with religious symbols. All of these alterations favored more ceremony and ritual, following trends in the Anglican and Episcopal Church often called the Oxford movement or Anglo-Catholicism, which tried to restore continuity between these denominations and their Catholic origins.
Points of Interest