St. Mary’s Whitechapel was named for a white “chapel of ease” outside London and for the church of that parish, St. Mary’s Church. Although the Colonial Virginia parish existed in 1657, the date of the founding of St. Mary’s White Chapel Parish is accepted as 1669, when Middlesex County was formed from the part of Lancaster County that lay on the south side of the Rappahannock River. On November 4, 1669, Captain David Fox in his will bequeathed 20 pounds sterling for the glazing of bricks and for other uses of St. Mary’s Whitechapel. David Fox probably also donated the land for the church, since he held all the land surrounding the church. Construction of a church building was started sometime prior to 1669. Records show that the church was “nearing completion” by 1675. Records also identify the builder, or “undertaker,” of the church as James Jones, the grandfather of President James Monrose. Originally the church was rectangular in shape. North and south wings were added in 1741 to accommodate a growing congregation, resulting in a cruciform or “cross plan” shape. The gallery in the south end was built at private expense by members of the Ball family; Mary Ball Washington was George Washington’s mother.
In 17th century Colonial Virginia, St. Mary’s Whitechapel was an Anglican Church, the established church of the colony. The management of the parish was conducted by a vestry comprised of 12 leading men of the parish, who were elected by their male peers. Vacancies were filled by appointment by standing members of the vestry. Vestrymen took oaths of allegiance to the King of England. They collected tithes from parishioners to pay the parish rector, supported the upkeep of the church, cared for widows, orphans, and the poor, and administered and oversaw the moral behavior of the parishioners.
By the mid-18th century, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists throughout the colony expressed their dissent from the established church. In 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights guaranteed the “free exercise of religion, according to dictates of conscience.” Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom was passed by the now Commonwealth of Virginia in 1786. Three years later, laws granting the Protestant Episcopal Church property rights in glebes and churches were repealed.
The disestablishment of the church resulted in the disuse of St. Mary’s Whitechapel for the first 30 years of the 19th century. During that time, the east end, where the chancel originally stood, and the west gallery end had deteriorated beyond repair. The chancel and the lower nave had fallen down. Two galleries, one over the “north door” and one in the west end, and the high pulpit had disappeared. There were no seats, door, high pulpit or furnishings. Hay was stored in it at times and cattle roamed around it. Tombstones disappeared and part of the cemetery became a potters field. About 1830 the original east and west ends were demolished, the north and south transepts were joined together, and the north door was closed with new brickwork. The result is the current rectangular form, though at right angles to the direction of the original church. The exterior brickwork in Flemish bond style reveals where the transepts were joined. The chancel was placed in the middle of the north end, chairs were brought from homes, and the communion table in use today was placed in front of it. Low-back pews were added later. The blue of the woodwork in the church is a reproduction of the color of the undermost coat of paint found on the woodwork of the gallery of the Ball family. The pulpit dates from 1979 and the organ from 1984.
The Reverend Alexander Cooke accepted the ministry of the parish before the County Court of Lancaster on October 6, 1652. Early ministers who served St. Mary’s Whitechapel Parish jointly with Christ Church Parish in southern Lancaster County include the Reverends Benjamin Doggett (who may have been the first to preach in the 17th century church), Andrew Jackson (a Presbyterian minister), and John Bell. There were no ministers from 1813 to 1832, the period of disestablishment. Nineteen ministers served both St. Mary’s Parish and Christ Church Parish from 1832 to 1970, serving as many as six churches in the two parishes. In 1973 St. Mary’s Whitechapel and Trinity Episcopal in Lancaster became an independent parish, and the two churches have continued to share a rector since that time.
Early Acquisitions Still in Possession of the Church:
Although the church was abandoned during the first few decades of the 19th century, some artifacts were removed and preserved, probably by parishioners. The reredoes, three walnut panels lettered in gold that hang behind the altar, are especially notable. The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, is the oldest. It was the gift of David Fox by will recorded in 1702. On either side of the Decalogue are the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, both bequeathed by William Fox, by will recorded in 1718. The earliest artifact is the silver chalice, a bequest from David Fox, Sr., in 1669. The chalice was made by George Garthorne, a British silversmith. The silver paten, a gift of George Spencer by will dated 1690, is marked with the initials “G.G.,” suggesting that it was made by the same silversmith as the chalice.
Other artifacts include the baptismal font, a bequest by William Fox in his will of 1718, an oak, Queen Anne design communion table, a gift from the Ball family, and a bible, presented to the church by Rawleigh William Dowman in 1832 on the occasion of the reestablishment of St. Mary’s Whitechapel.