One of Virginia’s Historical Sites
Elizabeth River Parish was created by the General Assembly in 1636 or 1637, and the first church was located in the vicinity of the present Naval Base. A “chapel of ease” was established in 1641 on or near our current location. The burying ground and church site was clearly shown on the 1680 survey to establish the town of Norfolk. The second parish church was built on the southeast corner of the property about 1699-1700. The present building, originally called the Borough Church, was completed in 1739. It was the only house of worship in Norfolk until 1773 (and similarly our burying ground was the only public cemetery in Norfolk until the 1820′s). Following the bombardment and burning of Norfolk in January 1776, only the thick walls of the church remained standing. A decade later the church was restored and returned to active use, in part with funds raised by a lottery. Around 1800 the congregation split into two quarreling factions, and for a time the building was used by others. In 1832 the old Borough Church building was renovated and consecrated as Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church. Over the years the building has seen a number of renovations, including at least two in the Victorian style. The present church retains the “colonial” restoration done in 1913.
The Borough Church/Saint Paul’s Church has been the location of notable events in local and national history: the established church in colonial Norfolk; the only remaining structure after the bombardment and burning of Norfolk in early 1776; brief use of the standing walls as a fort by Hessian soldiers in 1781; a formal commemoration of the death of George Washington in 1800 (and repeated in 2000); a yellow fever epidemic in 1855 during which the rector died serving the community; use of the church for religious services by Union forces during the occupation of Norfolk in the Civil War; a featured local attraction during the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition in 1907; the funeral of General Douglas MacArthur in 1964; and the “Laying Up of Ship’s Colors” for the USS Norfolk in 1969.
Service to the community has also been significant. During the colonial period the parson, wardens, and vestry of the established church had civil as well as religious responsibilities. For example, they cared for the poor, elderly, and orphans; established and ran a school for boys (which became Norfolk Academy); surveyed properties in the town; operated the ferry; and maintained records and collected the taxes (tithes). Among its many community programs over the years Saint Paul’s helped establish an orphanage for children of yellow fever victims in 1855, endowed a bed in 1902 in the Retreat for the Sick (which has since evolved into Sentara Norfolk General Hospital), established Norfolk’s first local history museum in the new parish house about 1910, provided space for the first Norfolk Boys’ Club from 1919 to 1924, offered the downtown community a six week series of summer lunchtime concerts through the 1970′s (and numerous smaller cultural events since then), opened the city’s first licensed infant day care center in 1984, joined with Grace Episcopal Church in 1988 to form Plumb Line Ministries to renovate and develop housing in low income neighborhoods, initiated in 1999 an annual Festival of Lessons and Carols in the Christmas season, and established a soup kitchen in Park Place in 2001.
The public is welcome in the churchyard during the day. Self-guided tour brochures are available in the church vestibule. Guided tours of the church are offered upon request. Please contact us today if you’d like to schedule a tour.