St. John's Episcopal Church *

First church building

[By Hannah Joyce, Fall 2015]

The St. John’s Episcopal church is located at 211 North Monroe street in Tallahassee, Florida. Although this church was not built in this year, St. John’s was founded in 1829 when Tallahassee was only a small frontier in the south. At this time, this was a tiny city that was struggling with the constant threat of being faced with Indian attacks. At this time, Tallahassee itself was in relatively rough condition. There was one local bank, about six local stores, and one Methodist church which was the only place of worship at the time.

            In 1820, Florida was still the property of Spain and Christians were having many issues gaining any foothold in the territory. When the Spanish sold Florida to the Americans  the government issues religion was lifted and the locals had the opportunity to pursue whatever religious practices they desired for the first time. This lead to the founding of St. John’s in 1829, making it Florida’s third Episcopal church, following the founding of one in St. Augustine and another Pensacola.

            This was a time in history when Tallahassee was in desperate need of faith. There was very little schooling and many people did not  even want to attend them. The law enforcement was also very lax and ineffective. Tallahassee struggled with a lot of crime, and a significant amount of murders. There was also very little health care at this time. There were on registered nurses working in Tallahassee and doctors were scare and located very far away from the actual city. These doctors were also very expensive for such a poor place at the time and often could not be of any assistance by the time they finally reached their clients that could afford their care.

            When St. John’s was founded, there was not yet a church built for worship so services were held in the Leon County courthouse. Ralph Willinton was appointed as the first minister for this church and travelled from the North to lead services in Tallahassee. Reverend J. Loring Woart was hired as the first reverend in 1836 for a salary of one thousand dollars a year. Reverend J. Loring Woart intiated the building of the first church structure for St. John’s. He worked to receive many donations for this cause and raised an estimate of $8,500 from citizens with the intention to fully reimburse them all. With this money, he purchased the building site for the structure for approximately $1,800. He hired a famous builder from New York named John Levinus. Mr. Levinus was responsible for the building of the brick capitol building in New York at this time and was well known for the high quality of his work. Unfortunately, Levinus died in a military excursion before the structure was completed but the church was finished in 1837 for a cost that totaled at about $10,000.

            Following the excitement of the finished structure was more tragedy for Tallahassee over the span of the next 30 or so years. This was the time of the Seminole Indian war, which was very bloody time in Florida history. It was also during a poor time for crop production in the south, killing their economics system. Then both of these events were topped by an aggressive outbreak of yellow fever in Tallahassee resulting in numerous deaths. All of these events caused major losses for the city and the people who had made a home here. These events lead into the times of the civil war; another struggle for Tallahassee and the south as a whole. Being isolated from the North, the Southern churches banded together in attempt to react in a positive manner of faith. A confederate prayer book was constructed and endorsed by many organizations, including St. John’s. This book was shipped off to be published but was soon intercepted by a northern spy and no copies of the books were ever actually produced leaving the South disappointed and discouraged in this time of need.

If these misfortunes were not difficult enough for the locals and St. John’s to handle, it would be very soon. On the afternoon of January 19th, in 1879 a fire broke out in the south end of the church and on the roof. Within minutes the entire building was in flames. The fire was deemed an accident and many valuables were able to be saved from the burning building, but the expensive organ and property damages totaled to around $10,000. Ironically, this fire took place only four month after St. John’s had to cancel their fire insurance because they could no longer afford the payments to cover it. This left the church in a very helpless state and caused the reverend at the time, Reverend Mr. Meany, to resign only 12 days after the fire. After an offer to another reverend for $50/month salary was declined, St. John’s hired Reverend Doctor W. H. Carter for just $75/month. He accepted this offer and begin holding services in a local schoolhouse while plans for a new church were being discussed.

Over the course of nine years, the new church was slowly being rebuilt and expanded. A new organ was installed in 1886 to replace the one lost in the first fire and on December 2nd in the year 1888 the first service was held in the completed new church. All was well until a storm caused some damage to the beautiful stained glass windows in 1899, but compared to what this church has already been through, this was a minor obstacle.

From the time St. John’s was founded to 1959 Tallahassee had changed drastically in so many different ways. The city’s populations increased from around 6,000 to 47,021. At this time the church’s membership had also reached about 3,000 as opposed to the few hundred it has in the twenties. St. John’s has only gone upwards since it’s founding and issues that followed it and it will continue to prosper in Tallahassee for many more years.