Grace and St. Peter’s Church as it exists today is the product of two important nineteenth century congregations. Established in 1802 as the second Episcopal church in Baltimore, St. Peter’s Church was evangelical in its theological orientation. One of its rectors, George Cummins, founded the Reformed Episcopal Church in 1873. St. Peter’s Church was a pioneer in the area of education, boasting a thriving church school and the first “free school” in Baltimore and later an “asylum for female children.”
The growth of the city in the first half of the 19th century and the increasingly commercial character of the downtown location of St. Peter’s Church at Sharpe and German (now Redwood) Streets, prompted St. Peter’s to consider finding a new location as early as the 1840s. Under the influence of Bp. Whittingham, a new congregation, comprising mainly members of St. Peter’s, was established near Mt. Vernon Square, an area that was becoming increasingly developed with elegant houses for the city’s elite. A brownstone church, built in the English Gothic style and named Grace Church, arose on the corner of Park Avenue and Monument Street in 1852.
Thomas Atkinson, the incumbent rector of St. Peter’s, became the first rector of the new church. In less than a year, Atkinson was elected Bishop of North Carolina. His successor was Arthur Cleveland Coxe, a “high church” clergyman and protégé of Bp. Whittingham. Despite the tensions that the Civil War brought to the surface between secessionists and Union supporters within the congregation of Grace Church, it became increasingly active during the second half of the nineteenth century in the foundation of new missions, churches, and other eleemosynary organizations, most notably Church Home and Hospital, the Deaf Mute Mission, and the Church of the Advent in South Baltimore. Shortly after the establishment of Grace Church, St. Peter’s Church moved from its downtown location in 1868 and built a large stone church in the northwest section of the city on the corner of Druid Hill Avenue and Lanvale Street. It, too, was active in the planting of new churches, fueled by the population surge that Baltimore experienced as a result of its growth as a port city and railroad hub in the industrial age. When the nation’s first segregation ordinance was proposed in Baltimore in 1910, St. Peter’s Church lay on the border between a wealthy white area and a less affluent African-American neighborhood. Rejecting the entreaties of the bishop and following the pattern of many white homeowners, St. Peter’s decided to relocate and sold its building to the congregation of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Unable to find a new permanent home, St. Peter’s merged with its scion Grace Church in 1912.
From all evidence, the consolidation of the two liturgically dissimilar congregations apparently caused little friction among members, with the two original rectors, Arthur Chilton Powell of Grace Church and Romilly F. Humphries of St. Peter’s, sharing the authority of leadership equally as associate rectors. Powell retired in 1913, and during his twenty-five year tenure he had overseen the installation of a new Roosevelt organ; the acquisition of a new baptismal font; and the substantial renovation of the chancel, sanctuary, and parish house. The vestry elected Humphries as rector of the newly united Grace and St. Peter’s Church, and he served another six years in that capacity.
Grace and St. Peter’s ministry and membership continued to flourish over the course of the next fifteen years. At its heyday in the 1920s, the congregation topped 1700 communicants. Under the leadership of H. P. Almon Abbott and with the support of many prominent parishioners, significant upgrades in the fabric included a new Austin organ, sacristy, four-story parish house, and an exquisite Lady Chapel. In addition, the church undertook two innovative ministries: the Healing Mission and the Chinese Church School. Abbott left Grace and St. Peter’s in 1929 when he was elected Bishop of Lexington, Kentucky.
The Great Depression coincided with the transition in the leadership of the parish. Robert Chalmers succeeded Abbott, and the church struggled to pay off debt incurred by the construction of the new parish house. When Chalmers died in 1935, simmering discord between high- and low-church factions of the congregation bubbled to the surface. Perhaps reflecting lingering tensions as a result of the merger, a conflict arose over the choice of a new rector and it received the attention of both the Bishop of Maryland and local news media. The outcome affirmed the high-church stance, and Reginald Mallett, styled an “Anglo-Catholic” by the Sunpapers, was chosen as rector in 1936. Within eight years, Mallett, like many of his predecessors, was elected bishop and moved on to the Diocese of Northern Indiana in 1944. His successor, Daniel Corrigan, had an even shorter tenure that lasted less than three years. He was later elected Suffragan Bishop of Colorado. According to the Sunpapers, he formed the “nucleus of a parochial school” and supported the “Chinese Fellowship,” both of which efforts featured prominently in the ministries of later rectors.
The disruptions of the Depression, World War II, and its aftermath caused major population shifts away from downtown neighborhoods, specifically the removal of many families to burgeoning suburban communities that were quickly developing to the north of the city. Much of the impetus for this migration was fueled by racial prejudice. A summit on “racial problems” held at Grace and St. Peter’s in 1946 suggests that there was an awareness among Maryland Episcopalians in the immediate postwar period that the issue of race had to be acknowledged and addressed by the religious community. The complex societal challenges facing Baltimore greatly influenced the ministry of Grace and St. Peter’s from the 1950s to the present day.
Rex Bozarth Wilkes, rector from 1949 to 1976, oversaw the period of greatest change in the size, demographic composition, and character of the parish. No longer a congregation of affluent white families that resided nearby, Grace and St. Peter’s was steadily becoming a more diverse community, first with the infusion of Chinese families dating back to the 1920s, and later attracting African-American families and individuals who experienced Grace and St. Peter’s as a welcoming spiritual home. In addition, the large number of single people living in apartments in the Mt. Vernon area provided another source of membership for the church. However, a growing number of parishioners no longer lived downtown and traveled from residences in outlying areas to attend services. The availability of other options in the suburbs fed a slow but steady decline in membership. In addition, parishioners were generally less wealthy than those in preceding decades. Nevertheless, one of the hallmarks of the Wilkes years was the formation of an open-minded congregation that accepted one-another regardless of race, economic status, or sexual orientation.
At the beginning of his rectorship, Rex Wilkes, along with his wife Berniece, launched a parochial elementary school based on the work of his predecessor Daniel Corrigan. At its peak in 1975 it boasted a full-capacity enrollment of nearly 180 students. Bringing extensive training in theater and speech to the church, Wilkes founded the Church Guild Players, an inter-parochial, inter-denominational group affiliated with the religious drama society of the Church of England. He also devoted a significant portion of his energy to supporting the Chinese community within the congregation. In 1954, Grace and St. Peter’s held a Lunar New Year celebration that became a signature annual event heralded by local media and attended by many in the wider community, including city and state government officials.
To address the declining fortunes of downtown parishes in the 1960s, the diocese attempted a strategy to help reduce operating expenses by merging staff resources. For several years in the mid-1960s Grace and St. Peter’s and Christ Church (now defunct) participated in a “combined ministry” in which Wilkes was the rector of both churches and held Sunday services at both locations employing one choir. This experiment failed largely because of the differing liturgical styles of the two congregations. As a result, both churches lost members. Grace and St. Peter’s had always enjoyed a strong musical heritage, and in 1970 a choir of men and boys—which had earlier existed in the ‘20s and ‘30s—was re-established, drawing on the parochial school for boy choristers and bringing school families into the congregation.
The riots in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King and the continued exodus of residents from the city exacerbated the decline in the size of the congregation. When Edward Palmer Rementer, formerly the associate rector, assumed the reins of leadership in 1976, he inherited a dwindling—and aging—congregation and a deteriorating physical plant. To address both problems of membership and maintenance, Rementer established the Parish Activity Planning Committee to organize fellowship and fundraising efforts. By methodically addressing bricks and mortar problems he reversed years of deferred maintenance. Fr. Rementer actively supported the Chinese members of the congregation and instituted a Cantonese service on Sunday afternoons.
Frederick Shepherd Thomas, who had been Rementer’s assistant, became rector in 1987 and served in this capacity until his untimely death in 2016. A passionate advocate for the school and a caring pastor, Thomas focused on refining the spiritual aspects of the life and worship of the parish and espoused a Roman-leaning version of Anglo-Catholicism. As in his predecessor’s tenure, the challenges of maintaining the historic buildings in his care with limited resources proved difficult but not impossible. Thomas oversaw the restoration and protection of the stained glass windows, the repair of the church roof and refurbishment of the interior walls and woodwork, and a complete restoration of the historic tile floor. He worked collaboratively with the school to complete major repairs and renovations in the buildings shared by both organizations.
Adapted from An Historical Sketch of Grace & St. Peter's
Hall, Clayton Colman. Baltimore: Its History and Its People. Vol. 1, History. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1912.
Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Baltimore City and County: From the Earliest Period to the Present Day. Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881.