The Church of St. Mary the Virgin owes its origins to Joseph Paul, a freed black slave who came with the Loyalists from North Carolina. Paul in 1794 built a chapel at the corner of Heathfield and Augusta Streets in the Western District, which he called St Paul’s Chapel. Paul was an African Methodist Episcopalian and in 1800 came over to the Church of England bringing his chapel with him. It was used as a place of worship, but it had never been licensed for that purpose.
In 1844, the local Methodists disputed the ownership of the land and so the community had to move. This it did and relocated to the Bray’s School – housed on the site of the present St. Mary’s. Being no longer required for school purposes and under licence from the Venerable Archdeacon John McCammon Trew, the first Archdeacon of the Bahamas and Bishop’s Commissionary, it was used as the place for Divine services under the title of St. Mary the Virgin. It was made a Chapel at Ease of Christ Church.
A chapel at ease is a district (mission) church. In 1848, when Bishop Aubrey Spencer, the Bishop of Jamaica and the Bahamas, visited Nassau, he consecrated the building with its churchyard. The first daily services to be held in the Bahamas were held at St. Mary’s beginning on the 4th June, 1855. The Rev’d William Duchett was the incumbent at that time.
On the 1st July, 1863, St. Mary’s became a separate parish. On the 1st October, 1866, the Church was destroyed by the great hurricane of that year. The Church was rebuilt in 1868 and was consecrated on the 28th April, 1869, by the Bishop of the Diocese, the Right Reverend Addington Venables. The Rector of the Parish at that time was the Reverend (later the Venerable Archdeacon) Charles Wakefield. He came to the Parish just after the hurricane of 1866. He came only for a few months, but he found the character of the work so interesting and the people so encouraging that instead of staying for six months, he stayed for twenty-six years. He was a personal friend of Bishop Venables who was then Bishop of the Diocese.
The cost of the church, which was a stone one of reasonable size (the present building without the sanctuary), was 1800 pounds and this amount came from members of the congregation and their friends.
Six years later, a stone schoolhouse was built at a cost of 300 pounds. This amount came mainly from friends in England. This building was used chiefly as a Sunday and Day School, though other parochial activities would take place there from time to time. During the incumbency of Father Wakefield, the Midnight Mass at Christmas, the Three Hours Devotion on Good Friday, Eucharistic Vestments, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession and absolution) were introduced in the Parish and the Diocese. Indeed, the spirituality and worship of St. Mary’s had a considerable influence in the Diocese at that time.
The Community of St. Mary did not just look inwardly to themselves, but under the leadership of Father Wakefield, the parish reached out to their brothers and sisters in South Eleuthera and helped them establish churches in that area, especially Bannerman Town, where the Church was named St. Mary the Virgin after the one in New Providence. A Catechist was also sent to that area from the Parish to assist the development of other new congregations.
Father Wakefield was made Archdeacon of the Diocese, the first since the new Diocese was established. His appointment took place in 1889. In addition, he had been a master of the Diocesan Grammar School for a number of years prior to his appointment as Archdeacon. He left the Diocese in May 1892, after twenty-six years of great service to the Parish and the Diocese.
The Parish had no Rectory during most of the years that Father Wakefield was Rector. He had to rent a house on West Hill Street near the steps at the top of Queen’s Street. In 1890, the Parish was in a position to purchase a home on Nassau Street near the Church, and it was called Melrose.
Father Wakefield was succeeded by the Reverend William Lowndes. The interior walls and roofs were skilfully painted by him with great assistance from his sister, who prepared the designs. Further, the music and singing were greatly increased and became more beautiful. Due to ill health, he resigned in 1915 and returned to England. It is interesting to note that both Fathers Wakefield and Lowndes had a great influence on the newer and younger clergy of the Diocese. They followed the lead of these incumbents in many aspects of the church’s ministry and teaching.
In 1915, Father Charles Smith, the Parish Priest of South Eleuthera, became Rector of St. Mary’s. He had been in the Diocese since 1886 and previously was the Rector of Central Eleuthera also.
As Rector, he was able to achieve his goal of eliminating the parochial debt resulting from the previous additions to the Church and the purchase of the new large rectory on Nassau Street, which was sold and a smaller one was bought on Delancy Street at a saving. He was able to send a thousand pounds to the Endowment Fund.
Father Smith retired in 1922 and returned to England.
Father Herbert George was appointed Rector in 1922. In addition to being a Priest, he was a trained teacher and during his time in the Parish, he established the Diocesan Western School as a secondary school for boys. This school was a precursor of the Government High School. Father George was transferred to St. Agnes as Rector in 1924. The Government High School was opened in 1925 and his successor closed the Diocesan Western School in 1926.
During the interregnum, the Bishop took charge of the Parish. Father Thomas Blofeld was appointed Rector in 1926 and remained in the Parish until early in 1929 when he returned to England. Again Bishop Shedden took charge of the Parish. New Providence was greatly damaged by hurricanes in both 1928 and 1929. St. Mary’s was affected by both, but more greatly by that of 1929, when it lost its roof among other destruction. Immediately funds began to be raised and the repair work began. During the restoration period services were held in the Schoolroom. Naturally, the Bishop was unable amongst all his other activities to give the time required of him to the task and so he appointed Father Wilfred Jennings to be Priest in Charge of the Parish under his direction from 1929 until early 1931.
By Advent 1929, the chancel was completely repaired and services were held there by mid-1930, the new roof for the nave was in place.
Father Jennings returned to the United Kingdom at the beginning of 1931 and the new Rector, the Reverend Edward Holmes was in place in February 1931. His stay in the Parish was in line with the first two Rectors. Indeed, he served the Parish for forty-one years with great dedication and care for all. During his incumbency, he completed all the remaining restoration of the hurricane damage and was responsible for the new bell tower. But above everything else, he extended the Ministry of the Church by establishing the Mission Church of the Holy Spirit in Chippingham in 1939. Like some of his predecessors, he was also very involved in Diocesan affairs. Spiritually and financially, the church was in a good state at his departure. The Reverend Sidney Eldon assisted him as a vocational Deacon and Catechist during his tenure as Rector.
One who had served in the Parish for a short period as his assistant succeeded Canon Holmes on his retirement in 1972. The Rev’d. Glendon Brant was Rector until the Church of the Holy Spirit was separated from St. Mary’s in 1974. He chose to go to the new Parish of the Holy Spirit.
The Parish of St. Mary was vacant once again and Father Kirkley Sands succeeded Fr. Brant at that time. He was the first Bahamian to become Rector of the Parish. During his incumbency, the Church was refurbished – the floor was tiled, and a new ceiling and lights were installed. A new Rectory at the southern corner of Heathfield and Augusta Streets was built. In 1979 he was transferred to St. Matthew’s as Rector.
In February 1979, Father Peter Grist became Rector of the Church where he remained until August 1997. He continued the restoration of the Church. He was responsible for adding the stained glass windows in the Church, and for air-conditioning, it, all without debt, as well as eliminating the indebtedness that previous improvements had incurred.
On September 1, 1997, Canon Warren H. Rolle assumed the duties of the Church, from which he retired in 2008. During his incumbency, he was assisted in his Ministry by the Reverends John Taylor, Angela Palacious and Tyrone Mackenzie.
Canon Rolle was succeeded by the Reverend Dwight Bowe, who was appointed Rector with effect from April 1, 2008. Father Bowe has been assisted by the Reverend Theodore Hunt, Reverend Shazzasbazzar Turnquest, and the Reverend Canon Harry Ward. They along with the people of God continue, over hundred and seventy-five years later, to build God’s involved and dedicated Community of St. Mary the Virgin.
A Brief History of St. Mary the Virgin, by the Right Reverend Michael H. Eldon
Nassau New Providence P.O. Box N-3178