More History

A Brief History

In the 1840s a portion of the congregation at Monumental Church on Broad Street moved to fashionable Grace Street just west of the Virginia State Capitol. St. Paul’s congregation included bankers, industrialists, clerks, and a handful of black men and women. Proud of its Confederate connections, the people of St. Paul’s erected memorials to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis in the 1890s and embraced the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War.

In the early twentieth century, as many churches moved farther west to Richmond’s new suburbs, St. Paul’s remained downtown, where it became a leader of social activism. By the latter part of the century St. Paul’s stood behind significant efforts to alleviate Richmond’s housing inequality, to address the needs of children with hearing impediments, and to fund public health clinics. St. Paul’s incubated one of Richmond’s first AIDS advocacy groups, made a difference in the lives of formerly incarcerated women, and founded a citywide effort to aid underserved students in Richmond’s public schools.

Built between 1843 and 1845, St. Paul’s is now a Virginia Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The sanctuary features a Manuel Rosales organ in a mahogany case designed in the Greek Revival style, as is fitting for the historic Greek Revival building. Many of the stained glass windows were designed by Lewis Comfort Tiffany, and a Tiffany mosaic reredos of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” graces the altar. Adjacent to the sanctuary is a two-story parish house with church offices, an atrium, a parish hall, meeting rooms, and a library. Beneath the parish house is a parking deck.

The People of St. Paul’s

The story of St. Paul’s has been created by many people. Here are a few who have made our church what it is today:

John Johns (1796-1876): Serving St. Paul’s as an interim rector and the Diocese of Virginia as an assistant bishop and then bishop, he had a lifelong interest in the religious instruction of African Americans, both enslaved and free. He was instrumental in the formation of the first black congregation in Richmond in 1859 (later St. Philip’s Church), and he proclaimed the broader church’s responsibility for the instruction of freed people immediately after the Civil War.

Nancy Scott (before 1830-1860): She was one of the first African American members of St. Paul’s, circa 1849-1860. A free woman, she was arrested in 1857 for moving about the city without freedom papers and died tragically in 1860 when her clothing caught fire.

Nancy Beirne MacFarland (1816-1900): She led a Soldiers Aid Society during the Civil War and later founded the Hollywood Memorial Association, responsible for repatriation of the bodies of 18,000 war dead to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. She was a leading figure in organizing church activities involved with Civil War recovery efforts and memorializing the war.

James Brown McCaw (1823-1906): A physician, he was commandant of Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond during the Civil War, responsible for the treatment of more than 76,000 soldiers with only a ten percent mortality rate. Nearly 250 free and enslaved African Americans worked under his command.

Walter Russell Bowie (1882-1969): As rector from 1911 to 1923, he energized St. Paul’s with progressive outreach activities. He worked tirelessly alongside his aunt, Mary-Cooke Munford, on behalf of health access, child welfare, and housing conditions for black Richmonders. A founding member of the city’s Commission on Interracial Cooperation, he denounced the Ku Klux Klan from St. Paul’s pulpit in 1920 and 1921.

Mary-Cooke Branch Munford (1865-1938): A towering figure of social activism in the early twentieth century, she was a founding member of the city’s Commission on Interracial Cooperation and worked on health, housing, and education issues. She campaigned against city and state segregation laws from the 1910s into the 1930s.

Richard W. Carrington (1888-1933): In the 1920s and 1930s he was a member and the chairman of the Richmond Commission on Interracial Cooperation. He, along with Beverly D. Tucker, Jr., and Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, challenged segregation ordinances as producing overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions.

Robert Damell (circa 1860-1925): Beloved long-time sexton of the church (1908-1925), Damell, an African American, was an Army veteran who previously served as a “Buffalo soldier” out west. When he died tragically in a car accident, his unusual funeral — seating African Americans in the sanctuary and white mourners in the galleries — broke racial protocol and made the newspapers.

Kate Noble Pleasants Minor (1857-1925): Widow of Confederate veteran E. C. Minor, she was on the founding boards of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society and Battle Abbey, a church that became the home of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. A longtime reference librarian at the Library of Virginia, she also served on the board of directors for the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls and was a founding member of the Woman’s Club.

Beverly D. Tucker, Jr. (1882-1969): He was rector of St. Paul’s from 1923 to 1938 and then served as Bishop of Ohio until 1952. He was a member of Richmond’s Commission on Interracial Cooperation, participating in cross-racial dialogue and making trips to City Hall to fight for better living conditions for African Americans.

Mary Wingfield Scott (1895-1983): She was a crusading voice for more than half a century for preserving Richmond’s historic architecture, regularly battling with city officials and developers. She wrote two books, Houses of Old Richmond and Old Richmond Neighborhoods, and over the years purchased many city houses that she felt needed to be preserved.

Mary Tyler Cheek McClenahan (1917-2005): A formidable activist for race relations, she supported integration of St. Paul’s and diocesan schools and camps. She served on the board of the Richmond Urban Institute, founded the Richmond Urban Forum (sponsoring interracial social and networking dinners), and co-founded the Better Housing Coalition.

Ruby Grant Martin (1933-2003): An attorney, she was operations director of the Office of Civil Rights in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson and Virginia secretary of administration under Gov. Douglas Wilder. The first African American vestry member at St. Paul’s (1987-89), she was the task force leader for the Micah Initiative in 1999, established to support Richmond city schools.

Joseph Heistand (1924-2008): Rector of St. Paul’s from 1955 to 1968, he oversaw the renovation of the church, including the addition of the parking garage. He worked behind the scenes in civil rights efforts to integrate public facilities through his involvement with the Richmond Ministers Association. He also led biracial outreach to the deaf and the handicapped.

John Shelby Spong (b. 1931): As rector of St. Paul’s from 1969 to 1976, he was influential in leading St. Paul’s activist efforts dedicated to social ministry. He established the Isaiah 58:12 initiative to provide seed money to fund community projects (such as the Fulton medical clinic) and to help alleviate the effects of racism and discrimination.

S. Buford Scott (1933-2019): Three times a St. Paul’s vestryman and senior warden, he has given financial and moral support to numerous outreach initiatives since the late 1960s. He helped establish Micah, founded Eyes on Richmond, has been a community philanthropist for housing (HOME) and other organizations, and is a co-founder of Elk Hill Farm, a residential facility for young people who face overwhelming challenges.

Benjamin P. Campbell (b. 1941): St. Paul’s priest-in-residence and pastoral associate since 1983, he has led racial dialogue and reconciliation work in Richmond for more than three decades. Founder of Richmond Hill, an ecumenical Christian fellowship and residential community, he is a former commissioner of the Richmond Urban Institute and has been instrumental in the development of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission and Hope in the Cities, a center for community dialogue.