A History of
St. Stephen’s Church
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Pro-Cathedral was built in 1897 and consecrated in 1899. It is the fifth Church edifice built in the same location and was designed by Philadelphia architect Charles Marquedant Burns, Jr. (1838-1922). St. Stephen’s, which was chartered in 1817, has a rich history of worship in the Anglican tradition.
The origin of the Episcopal Church in this region of Pennsylvania is bound up in the history of St. Stephen’s. With an end to the American Revolution, existing Anglican parishes throughout the United States were in disarray – many church buildings had been seized by Tory and British, or the Revolutionary forces, and put to secular use, or even destroyed. Many Anglican clergy – who if not born in England had been educated and ordained there – had been driven away, restricted in travel or ordered to England. An exception was William White, Philadelphia-born rector of Christ & St. Peter’s Church in that city and chaplain to the wartime Congress (1777-1789). In 1787, White was consecrated Bishop of Pennsylvania within the Anglican apostolic succession, which allowed for the ordination of priests to re-supply vacant parishes and to bring the Episcopal Church to new areas of the country.
Religion in Wilkes-Barre 1815
Until 1799, Connecticut – established as a Puritan colony – claimed political control of Wilkes-Barre, founded some thirty years before. In typical New England fashion, a town church, called Old Ship Zion was designed by Joseph Hitchcock of New Haven (also designer of the Forty-Fort Meeting House) was begun on Public Square in the 1800’s, for use by adherents of Baptist, Congregational, Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions. Puritans in the Congregational and Presbyterian bodies objected to the celebration of Christmas and hence decoration by Episcopalians, the latter withdrew from the still incomplete Zion in 1813. Between 1814 and 1823 St. Stephen’s was organized, received Prayer Books, and visits from the famous missionary priest, later Bishop, Jackson Kemper from Philadelphia. St. Stephen’s received its state charter, entered union with the Diocese of Pennsylvania and built our church at it’s present site, the first place of worship in the Wyoming Valley created for use by a single denomination. Both Bishop White, also presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and future Bishop Kemper were present to dedicate the first church in 1823. The Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian bodies ultimately left Zion as well, the Baptist Church building to our immediate west the other two buildings to our north and south on Franklin Street.
In only eight years St. Stephen’s had outgrown its building and a new church was built and dedicated in 1832 and like its predecessor was a wood-frame building. In twenty years the process was repeated, this time a brick church with a central tower was built and dedicated 1855. Yet another twenty years of growth forced another new church building, technically an expansion of the 1855 structure, although much larger and much changed, that was dedicated in 1889.
On December 25, 1896 cinders caught in a chimney after the Christmas Eve service ignited a fire that destroyed the church. Only the new bell tower on Franklin Street and the foundation was left standing. Reverend Jones, the Rector at the time, vowed that the church would be rebuilt, without diverting any money from outreach or missionary ministries. Christmas Eve 1897, one year after the fire, the church where we worship today was opened for the first service. During construction St. Stephen’s used the Grand Opera House, once located in the present parking area, for worship and parish meetings.
The Parish house, containing offices, classrooms and meeting rooms, was dedicated in 1923 replacing an earlier structure. St. Stephen’s also had a Club House building until 1972. Severely damage by the Hurricane Agnes Flood this building was demolished, the site is now our park, and its functions combined with the Parish House. In the 1970s and 1980s areas beneath the Parish House we excavated to provide space for our community ministries, notably REACH Food Pantry and Clothing Closet and the Interfaith Health Clinic.
People and the Ministry
Church histories are often traced through the ministry of their clergy. A broader perspective is demanded. Some 17 priests have served as rectors, many with relatively short, but not insignificant tenures. Rev’d James May (1827 – 37) was sponsored by St. Stephen’s for ordination, in his time the second church was constructed. Under Rev’d Robert Claxton (1840-46) this parish began founding subsidiary missions in the Wyoming Valley. Within fifty years some 12 churches were under direction of our rector, the Rev’d Henry Jones. During Dr. Jones forty-year tenure (1874-1914) the current church and its predecessor an earlier Parish House and two schools for the community were built by St. Stephen’s. His curate, Rev’d Frank Sterrett was Jones’ successor (1914-23) and then Bishop (coadjutor 1923-28, Diocesan 1928-54)
Names recorded on the north nave wall evidence some of the many St. Stephen’s parishioners who contributed generously to community needs: building health centers and hospitals, libraries, schools and similar foundations, either independently or through the parish, that serve this city, county, valley and commonwealth.
As noted above St. Stephen’s was instrumental in the foundation and support for 12 churches (later independent parishes) from Scranton in 1831, Hazleton in 1858 and to White Haven in 1860, an area of hundreds of square miles. Lay members of St. Stephen’s frequently accepted roles in those missions such as Sunday School instructors.
By the early 20th century, St. Stephen’s outreach ministries acquired national recognition: the aforementioned Sunday Schools not only furnished religious instruction, like their modern counterparts but for working-class families often provided the only primary schooling available to their children. The ‘industrial schools’ St. Stephen’s built for Wilkes-Barre in 1888 and 1899 trained older children in trades other than mining.
St. Stephen’s maintains this heritage; our status as a Jubilee Ministry which enables our congregation along with others to face the facts of poverty and injustice taking an active role in improving our neighbors’ situations in meeting their needs and in the struggles against the causes of such suffering.