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A Brief History of St. John's Church

A Brief History of St. John's Church

Helena, Arkansas
Established 1853

The first services of the Episcopal Church in Arkansas were held in a private home in Helena in 1839 by the Right Reverend Leonidas Polk, who served as Missionary Bishop of the Episcopal church. In 1853, St. John’s Church was organized by the Right Reverend George W. Freeman, Bishop of Arkansas, taking its name from St. John’s Church, Ashwood, Tennessee, near Bishop Polk’s home. Twenty people signed the articles of association.

On Easter Even, 1861, the first services were held in a new building, located at the corner of Cherry and Rightor Streets. The Right Reverend Henry C. Lay, the third Missionary Bishop of Arkansas, was the officiant. The church building was completed a few days before the opening hostilities of the Civil War. It was in use for just over a year, when the Federal troops occupying Helena confiscated it for their own purposes, to use it as a post chapel and later, as a school for the children of freedmen. Some months after the war was over, through the persistence of the Rector, the church building was reclaimed, and it was in continuous use by the congregation until 1896. At that time, it was sold and the resultant funds from the sale were applied toward the building a new structure.

When the second church was built and dedicated in 1899 at the present site, it was a latecomer to this block of Pecan Street. The Methodist Church (1844) and the Women’s Library (1891) were already here. Drawing on information from early accounts, it is likely that this corner property of St. John’s formed a part of the camp and drill grounds of the Federal Civil War installation known as Fort Curtis, a fortification which occupied the block on Franklin Street, one block East.

The second church burned in February, 1914, and the Methodist Church had burned in the previous year. At the Sunday service time, following the early morning fire at St. John’s, the two congregations held services together in the Library.

There had been beautiful memorials in the church, a few of them having come from the first church. A successful attempt was made to duplicate most of the large memorials and the 1899 church itself. The present church building was built on the same foundations of the 1899 church itself, and looking at reproductions of an old zinc etching which appeared in issues of the Helena World of January 30, 1899 and February 9, 1914, the building is very nearly a reconstruction of the church that burned. Inside it differs in a few respects, among them, the lighting and the material of the ceiling. The church was completed in June, 1916.

The only part of the church that was not destroyed by the fire was the tower. A stained glass window from the building is located in the Narthex. It was constructed by the Tiffany Decorating Company of New York. All the other windows were constructed by Jacoby Art Glass Company of St. Louis.

In the Phillips county Museum at this time is a scrapbook of early items of the church history. There is a photograph of the first Church, pages from a diary pertaining to Helena, and letters from Bishops Lay and Freeman. There is also a “quilt of the states,” made by the ladies of St. John’s in the 1880’s, to be used as a prize at a church benefit. This quilt has a panel for every state, some of which were made in other states, and the panel for Arkansas shows the scene from which the Arkansas Traveller story was made known. The quilt was won by a person from Pine Bluff and it stayed there until, by a series of coincidences, it was returned to Helena in 1930’s.

St. John’s Church building is a combination of Norman and Gothic styles of architecture, often called Old English. The interior of the church is cruciform, the east and west transcepts forming the arms of a Latin cross that is completed by the main body of the church and the chancel. The vaulted ceilings give to the church a sense of vastness that is enhanced by the height of the memorial windows.

The pipe organ in the Church was first installed in 1916. It was built by Hutchins Organ Builders, Boston, Massachusetts. The current pipe organ was built by Schantz Organ Company, Orrville, Ohio and installed in October, 1977. It is a two-manual, 24 rank instrument, which incorporated 2 ranks from the first organ. It has 1,376 pipes, ranging in size from that of a small drinking straw to 16-foot tall bass pipes.

We hope that you enjoy your visit to historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, Helena.