St. George’s Episcopal Church at Valley Lee

A homecoming picnic in front of St. George’s Episcopal Church under the old oak trees in 1940.

Writer: Johnn Cave 

Making a vibrant connection with the community for centuries

 

Ever since the settlers on the Ark and the Dove arrived in St. Mary’s County almost 400 years ago, St. George’s Episcopal Church at Valley Lee has been a fixture in the community.

In 1638, the colony in St. Mary’s gathered 100 people to establish a new political subdivision, named the St. George’s Hundred, in the rising hills of Valley Lee. This westward expansion along the St. Mary’s River necessitated the creation of a church as a place where members of the new community could gather.
As there were not many ordained priests in the colonies, the parish was first served by lay readers from within the community along with occasional visiting clergy from Virginia. Since then, the parish has remained, making St. George’s the site of the oldest Anglican church in Maryland whose parish is still in existence, according to the Maryland Historical Trust and the National Registry of Historic Places records.

 

St. George’s churchyard.

BETWEEN THE OAKS

The first church in Valley Lee was built around 1640 and lay between two large oak trees called The Treaty Oaks. The oaks pre-dated the church and served as a natural gathering space before the initial building was completed.
“Those oaks are gone, today, but there are plenty of folks who still remember them — and the church gatherings and autumn homecomings which took place under their welcome shade,” reads a brief history on the church’s website.
The church was rebuilt in 1692 and 1760, erected on the site where the current chapel stands — about 50 feet south of the original Treaty Oaks. In 1798, a fire disfigured the chapel roof and a year later, in 1799, a new church was built from the undamaged foundation. The present-day structure so closely resembles those past iterations that early parishioners would likely be able to recognize the rural, 18th-century ecclesial architecture.
Since 1799, St. George’s Church at Valley Lee has been constantly evolving.
In the 1880s, renovations began with the removal of the slave gallery, which were common in Colonial churches, and the purchasing of the current etched-glass windows in the church. There were also two separate attempts to construct a bell tower. However, even with steel support beams built into the walls, the weight of the bell made the roof unsafe causing the bell project to be abandoned.

 
MODERN CHANGES

By the 1950s, the population of St. Mary’s County started to boom with the construction of the U.S. Navy base at Patuxent River. Since the base’s opening, the population of St. Mary’s County has grown over 600%.
In accordance with a new, burgeoning population, there were major structural changes to the interior of the church in the 1950s to modernize. Many of the changes were welcome, such as heating and air conditioning as well as a new brick floor that contains four gravestones of early rectors.
The oldest, dating back to 1679, is inscribed in Latin for the Rev. Francis Sourton. However, an unwieldy pulpit and oversized furniture were also added which limited the versatility of the small chapel.
Reflecting the changing population in St. Mary’s County, St. George’s has made a number of changes within the church and the community to strengthen its role as a community hub.
 
MAKING A CONNECTION

Current Rector Gregory C. Syler is keenly aware that the culture in St. Mary’s and more broadly in America, doesn’t influence people to go to church as much as it once did. This is not an indictment of the culture as Syler puts it, but rather an exciting time for the church to be more responsible and creative within the community.
Currently St. George’s is connected with The Episcopal Church of the Ascension for a number of community-driven initiatives. The churches have partnered with Feed St. Mary’s, an organization to alleviate food insecurity throughout St. Mary’s County. In addition, St. George’s has put on a concert series called Music from Poplar Hill which features award-winning singers and musicians.
In relation to community growth, St. George’s has adapted its worship in church.
A small lectern that was removed in the 1950s renovations was found, and now replaces the large pulpit that had taken up most of the room, allowing a flexible space for events.
“We can turn the church into a concert venue and a concert venue into a church,” he says. “The design is now much simpler. It certainly looks more like it did in those pictures before the 1950s renovations. Kind of a simpler country church, so to speak.”
Syler also notes an added effort to place children at the center of worship creating a more multi-generational service as children, youth and young families have accounted for the church’s most recent growth.
“It may make it a more-noisy Sunday gathering,” Syler says, “but [it] has enriched the community with vibrancy, connection and a warm atmosphere.” •