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St. John’s Episcopal undergoes extensive renovations

St. John’s Episcopal Church located on Mountain Road in the Town of Halifax is an immediate link to the past — rich with the nation’s history from the many war veterans who served in almost every American-fought war. These late veterans now lie in the church’s cemetery.

St. John’s also boasts a parish rector — Charles Dresser — who had the privilege of marrying the 16th President Abraham Lincoln and his wife.

Now in its attempt to advance into the 21st century, the church built in 1844 and its parish house built in 1962 have undergone more than $200,000 in renovations.

Renovations to the church are nearing completion, and an open house is set for Saturday, Sept. 28, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to reveal the final product. 

Tours of the sanctuary, parish house and cemetery will take place on the hour throughout the day. A dedication and blessing for both the church and the parish house will take place on Sunday, Sept. 29.

According to Interim Rector the Rev. Cleon Ross, renovations were funded by member contributions, Sunday offerings and restoration trust funds the church has had for years.

 Before the renovations, Ross said the parish house had cinderblock walls, drop ceilings and old carpeting.  The building was not very handicap accessible either.

Now the Parish House rooms have been studded up and completely sheetrocked. The building has been completely rewired and insulated, Ross said.  

Hardwood floors have been installed, and special vinyl floors also have been installed in the bathroom.  A fireplace has been added to the rector’s study, and a chapel with stained glass windows also was included in the building. The Powell family sponsored the chapel in memory of Jo Powell.

Also new to the parish house is a newly renovated rector’s office and boardroom completely furnished, compliments of Frank Booker.  In addition, to the rector’s study, a new secretary’s office was donated by Mr. and Mrs. William Confroy, and a ramp was donated by the Chastain Home making the building completely handicap accessible.

 The new bathroom, also donated by the Chastain home, is handicap accessible. 

A chair lift has been installed inside the foyer of the building for those with handicaps to be able to come upstairs. 

Downstairs in the Parish House, Ross said rooms have been repainted and new lighting installed. A nursery, youth room and Christian education room can be found downstairs.

Roof maintenance also has been completed, and the exterior of the building has been painted.

 In the church, a handicapped bathroom was installed on the first floor, also donated by the Chastain Home. 

New beams have been added to the floor. The entire interior of the church has been repainted, and new carpeting has been installed in the sanctuary. The sanctuary pews, which are the original pews from when the church was built in 1844, were restored. 

Downstairs in the church, Ross said the parish hall was completely renovated. New ceilings, lighting and air conditioning along with new flooring have been installed. 

The hall also has been repainted and refurnished by members of the congregation. The choir room and the acolyte room have been remodeled, and the kitchen and bathroom facilities have been repainted. 

The exterior of the church also has been pressure washed and touched up with paint as needed.

 New signage marks the location of church and parish, and old tombstones have been power-washed to perfection.

While the church was built in 1844, its history dates back to 1752 when the King of England and the Governor of the Virginia Colonies established Antrim Parish, which included Halifax County and other surrounding counties. 

According to Ross, it wasn’t until 1828 that Charles A. Dresser became the rector of the parish and built a Protestant Episcopal Church, formerly known as St. Mark’s Episcopal located on Mountain Road. 

When the congregation outgrew St. Mark’s, the rector at that time, the Rev. John Grammar, asked Dabney Cosby Jr. to build what is known today as St. John’s Episcopal Church, Ross said. 

The interim rector noted the church was originally purchased for $6,524, and the land on which it sits was originally purchased for $600. 

 In 1845, St. Mark’s was sold to the Presbyterians who later sold the church to the Methodists.  Today, St. Mark’s is known as Halifax United Methodist Church.

  St. John’s Episcopal Church is an example of Greek Revival Architecture, Ross said.

 The pediment gable front of the Grecian temple–like building features four flat pilasters supporting a massive ionic entablature that extends around the side of the building. Atop the roof sits an octagon-shaped bell tower with four louvered arched openings and an unusually tall spire with plain cross.

The walls are solid brick with the exterior covered in stucco and scored to simulate blocks of granite. The treatment, called roughcasting, was especially new to Southern Virginia. 

Cosby’s father, Dabney Cosby Sr., was a well-known builder and brick mason who had worked with Thomas Jefferson on the construction of the University of Virginia, and he introduced the roughcasting process to the area. The two Cosbys also had built several large brick homes in the county, and in 1839 completed construction on the Halifax County Courthouse.

  According to Ross, those who tour the church on Sept. 28 will enter the church via the paneled double front doors into a narthex with identical winding stairs located on either side of the entrance. These steps lead to a balcony at the back of the nave or sanctuary.

 Originally, the balcony was horseshoe-shaped and extended along the sides of the nave atop the upper third of each window. The area was reserved for slaves who attended church. 

Visitors will enter the sanctuary via doors in the transverse hallway or narthex to see the interior of the church. This area retains its original painted wooden pews, a massive plaster ceiling medallion and chancel arch which features reeded pilasters supporting a decorative entablature with laurel wreaths and a heavy modeled cornice.

 The interim rector noted extensive alterations took place in the 1890s when J. A. Shackleford served as rector. 

Balconies along the sides of the church were removed, and the center portion of the chancel arch was extended to include an enlarged chancel or altar area, with a semi-circular apse and three stained glass windows. 

A sacristy was built on the west side of the apse and on the east side, a rector’s vesting room.

The parish house, which also is included in the tour, had classrooms for small children on the lower floor and several larger rooms for older children upstairs when it was first built. The building also had a large meeting room on the main floor.  

 Members of the church also will be giving tours of the churchyard where they will point out the graves of notable Southside Virginians who have been members of the church, Ross said. The deceased include John Ragland, a vestryman and Revolutionary War patriot, Jefferson Davis VanBenthuysen, nephew and namesake of the president of the Confederacy, and members of the Dabney Cosby family.