Immanuel Church

Founded in 1689, Immanuel Church in New Castle, Delaware is one of the oldest Episcopal parishes in the United States. Work on a church building began in 1703, and was mostly completed by 1708. Immanuel's parishoners have been worshipping on the spot where the church stands for over 300 years. The church's history and that of the town of New Castle have always been closely linked, and continue to be so today. 

The Reverend George Ross was the first rector of Immanuel, arriving in 1705 as a missionary sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Ross served as rector for Immanuel parish from 1705 until 1708 and then again from 1714 to 1754 (i.e., during the time of Johann Sebastian Bach).

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Revolutionary Times and Beyond

The American Revolution was a difficult time for the Anglican Church in the colonies. As the official state church of England, it struggled to find a role once the United States and England were no longer considered one nation. The church continued to exist and became self-governing as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America; otherwise known as the Episcopal Church after the Revolution.

During the later years of the 18th century, the church, known as the "Old Church," had fallen into disrepair to the point where it was dangerous to be inside. The rector at the time, Robert Clay, himself "loaned" the parish $1600 to perform repairs on the church.

Despite declining membership, in 1820 the parish decided to invest heavily in improvements to the church building. William Strickland, a noted American architect of the early 19th century, directed these improvements at his own expense, which included the addition of the bell tower and an extension of the transepts.

Starting in the late 1850s, the interior of the church was changed to suit Victorian tastes. The interior was again altered around 1900, when Victorian elements were replaced with Colonial Revival architectural features. This style reflected an idealized vision of what Immanuel once was, but did not accurately reflect the way the church ever actually looked.

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From the Ashes

On February 1, 1980, embers from a fire in the marsh by the river caught in the wind and landed on Immanuel's roof. The church was badly damaged in the ensuing fire, one of the more traumatic events in the town of New Castle's long history. Talk to any long-time resident of New Castle today, and they most likely will be able to tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard that Immanuel was on fire.

Although the building was heavily damaged, the spirit of the congregation remained strong and faithful. They resolved to rebuild the church and continue to worship on the same spot where Anglicans had worshipped for so many years. The church was restored to its 1822 William Strickland  design, with modifications to the sanctuary to accommodate modern liturgical needs. The church was rededicated on December 18, 1982. The current design includes a West Gallery, where the church's Austin organ is situated.

For more information about Immanuel Church, visit the church's website at www.immanuelepiscopal.com, from which the above was excerpted.


© Gary Harney 2016