Structural issues threaten Christ Episcopal

Published 6:43 pm Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Christ Episcopal Church is hosting tours of the circa 1832 church on Saturday, Dec. 15, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Christ Episcopal Church is suffering from structural problems that could threaten the future of the historic building, according to church officials.

One serious problem is that the mortar in the bricks making up the south wall of the church’s sanctuary has turned to sand, leaving the wall in danger of falling down, said Anita Wyrick who is part of the church’s preservation committee.

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Earlier this year, the church had to reinforce the large stained glass window where the grout and window frames had rotted, leaving it “free-standing” and in danger of falling in or out in the event of a strong wind. 

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The stained glass window depicts the life of Christ and is vividly detailed and colorful. It appears that the arched window was installed in 1892, and it is believed that Charles Tiffany made four of the stained glass panes, according to church history. 

The west wall, located on the Wharf Hill side, is leaning away toward the street, said Bill Egan, who serves as the church’s junior warden and is spearheading the effort to hire engineers to investigate the building’s structural defects. 

Other problems may involve the subfloor supporting the original parquet wood floors, and the bell tower, said Wyrick. 

In all, it adds up to an expensive preservation project for a small congregation without many resources, she said. 

“If this doesn’t happen (the preservation project), that church may have to close,” she said. 

Egan said the church has issued a request for proposals for an engineering firm to study the extent of the damage and structural issues facing the building. 

One goal of the study is to see if the mortar had degraded to sand throughout the entire sanctuary area, said Egan. 

Egan hopes the degraded mortar is confined to the area around the large stained glass windows on the South Church Street side of the building. 

Once the study determines the extent of the damages, plans for repairs will commence, followed by construction, likely in 2020, according to a timetable provided by church officials.  

Christ Episcopal Church is the oldest church building in the town of Smithfield, and the original congregation came from St. Luke’s Church. The original portion of the church, which includes the troubled sanctuary, was built in 1832, and the two-story addition, that includes the fellowship hall and Sunday school classrooms, was built in 1977.  

The stucco covering the exterior of the building was originally added in 1841 on what were then relatively new brick walls, according to “Smithfield: A Pictorial History,” by Segar Cofer Dashiell. 

Subsequent layers of stucco were added in the 1890s and 1900s. 

In addition to its historical significance, Christ Episcopal Church has been part of many key events in Smithfield and Isle of Wight County. 

For example, Good Shepherd Catholic Church used Christ as a meeting place until its own church was built in the 1980s. 

Christ was also the site of the first clothing store, Pennywise, opened for the benefit of low-income families and run out of the basement. 

Christ Episcopal Church was ground zero for the formation of what is now Isle of Wight County Christian Outreach and where the first Souper Saturday was held more than 25 years ago. 

The church sponsored the formation of the Sundays at Four concert series in 2008. The series has since attracted quality performers from throughout Hampton Roads and beyond, as well as providing a venue for youthful musicians and singers. 

Recently, the church began hosting its “Open Mic Night,” for local writers, storytellers and musicians to display their talent. 

“Our whole hope is to restore it to its beauty and keep the historical value of it, not to make it bright and modern,” said past rector Pamela Webb of the preservation effort. 

Those who want to donate to the Christ Episcopal Church restoration effort can do so by sending a check to Christ Episcopal Church, 111 S. Church St., Smithfield, VA 23430 and dedicate the funds to historic building restoration.  {/mprestriction}