Church History

Upon entering the church you will find the Nave to your right.  On the east end of the Nave is a large stained glass window dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Virginia Page.  It was Mrs. Page who requested her priest at Grace Church in Norfolk, VA to conduct services for a group that lived in Portsmouth in 1890.  The result was the establishment of a mission, with the Rev. George Freeman Bragg serving as their priest until he moved back to Baltimore, MD in 1891.

During the first year of St. James establishment, Bishop A. M. Randolph visited the mission. That same day first vestry of St. James and the Women’s Guild were elected.  It was with the oversight of Bishop Randolph and Archdeacon James S. Russell that this church was established as St. James’ Episcopal Mission.

In 1912, the congregation called its first full-time rector, the Rev. S. A. Morgan, who served until 1915.  From 1915 until 1917, the Rev. D. J. Lee, Rector of Grace Church, Norfolk, held a service each Sunday.  On Easter Sunday, 1917, the Rev. Meade Birchette, a student at Bishop Payne Divinity School, conducted his first service at St. James.  He continued to serve twice a month until his graduation in June, 1917.  He was then called to become the Vicar of St. James Church, where he remained until his death on March 16, 1944.

Four places housed the congregation until an old building at Effingham and Bart Streets was purchased in 1917.  One of the buildings on the new site, known at the “Deacon’s Bar”, was converted to a comfortable parish house.  The building contained a well-equipped gymnasium, guild room, and church school rooms.  This building was used for worship until Christmas in 1924, when the congregation moved into the building we use today for services.

The Church had a self supporting kindergarten taught by Mrs. Charlotte Baylies Russell Birchette.  She was the wife of the Rev. Birchette and the youngest daughter of Archdeacon Russell (founder of St. Paul’s College).  The Parochial School (which educated student from kindergarten through fourth grade) was the first of its kind in the City of Portsmouth for black children.  The Parish House became the Community Center for other churches, schools and social groups as it was the only facility available for blacks in the city.  The library was also housed, organized and maintained in the Parish House because blacks could not use the city public library.  St. James’ gymnasium, classrooms, play areas, departmentalized Sunday School rooms and chapel were widely used and appreciated by this community.

Over the course of time, the Parish Hall slipped into disrepair and decay and was eventually torn down around 1955.  During a period when the parsonage was unoccupied, it was used to hold meetings and Sunday School classes.  The next vicar to be called was then housed in another location away from the church.  Subsequently the property on which the parsonage stood was sold because of the need for funds and thus those activities were shifted to the main sanctuary and the choir room or to meetings in member’s homes.  Major activities, such as the Episcopal Church Women bazaars and church receptions were held across the street at the YMCA.  This practice continued until 1985.

On January 10, 1982, the cornerstone laying ceremony for the new Parish Hall was held, and despite the hardships to support the new construction, the blessing of each new room took place on September 25, 1985.

Rev. Joseph Green served as the interim rector from 1996 until 2000. The Rev. Dr. John Agbaje became the rector in April 2001. During Father Green’s tenure, St. James status changed from a mission to a parish. Part of Father John’s focus has been to enhance the parish status of the church through administration, liturgy, and church growth, and connection of the Church to the Diocese.

The awning for the parish hall and the steeple bells were restored after suffering damages from a storm in early 2011.

With God on our side we hope the church will continue to grow and continue its outreach into the wider community.

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