A Brief History
Seven years after Puritans settled Plymouth Plantation, traders and merchants, motivated by economic reasons came to the Piscataqua River Basin in 1630 and established a series of hamlets that became the first permanent settlement in New Hampshire. Originally named "Strawbery Banke" because of wild strawberries growing along the banks of the Piscataqua River Basin it soon became a prosperous shipping port and in 1653 the townspeople petitioned the Royal Governor of Massachusetts to have it renamed Portsmouth.
The first church in Strawbery Banke was erected in 1638. This Anglican church was located on what is today the southwest corner of Court and Pleasant Streets and The Reverend Richard Gibson was installed as Rector there in 1639. During the 1600's, the territory that is today New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts was all controlled by the provincial Government in Boston. Unfortunately, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts accused Rev. Gibson of conducting marriages and baptisms without authority and in 1641 Rev. Gibson was forced to resign and return to England leaving the Anglicans in Strawbery Banke without a church.
In 1732 New Hampshire was awarded its own Provincial Government independent from that of Massachusetts. As more English people settled in Portsmouth the demand to reestablish an Anglican church was steadily growing and in 1732 a wooden church was erected on the present site of St. John's. It was named "Queen's Chapel" after King George II's wife, Queen Caroline, who donated many fine gifts to help the new parish. The first Rector of Queen's Chapel was The Reverend Arthur Browne, and the parish prospered under his guidance until his death in 1773. Soon after Rev. Browne's death the American Revolution broke out and those in favor of the war frowned upon Anglican parishes because of their connection to England. As a result of this, many of them had a difficult time surviving both the war and the political restructuring that followed.
Queen's Chapel did not have another Rector until 1786 when The Reverend John C. Ogden arrived to revive the parish. It was incorporated by the young State of New Hampshire on February 15, 1791 and the name was changed to St. John's Church as Royal names had fallen out of favor since the Revolution.
The parish increased in growth until the tragic fire of December 24, 1806 which destroyed over 300 buildings in Portsmouth including the original wooden structure of St. John's and most of its contents. The parishioners were not to be denied and began immediately to raise funds to erect the present brick edifice. The cornerstone was laid on June 24, 1807 and 146 years later in 1953 a new Parish House was built beside the church. Today, St. John's Church of Portsmouth stands as the oldest Episcopal Parish in New Hampshire and in 1978 it was officially listed on the Register of Historic Sites.
The land adjacent to the northern side of the church was presented to the parish by the Hon. Theodore Atkinson in 1754 for use as a burying ground "for tombs, vaults and monuments" However, we know there were burials previous to this, as one headstone bears an inscription about the death of John Bradford in 1745. There are about 100 marked graves.
There are ten underground vaults which are accessible from the street. Six of them are located on Bow Street and four are on Chapel Street. Many prominent people of the colonial period are buried in these vaults including the Royal Governor Benning Wentworth (1741-1766) and the Rev. Arthur Browne, first Rector of Queen's Chapel (1736-1773).
Various articles published since 1807 have ascribed the architecture of the present church edifice to William Durgin of Sanbornton, NH in the periodical Historical New Hampshire Vol. XVIII No.3 (1973), James L. Garvin published an article, "St. John's Church in Portsmouth: An Architectural Study" At the same time, he was employed as the Research Curator at Strawbery Banke Museum. He concludes with documentation to support that Alexander Parris of Portland, Maine was the architect of this church design. Parris (1780-1852) later became well known for his architectural talents. Garvin also cites names of many prominent craftsmen who participated in building the edifice. Since 1807 several changes have been made internally and externally, yet the nave of the church remains similar to the original design. The box pews were removed from the ground floor in 1867 and were replaced by slip pews. Also, an addition was placed on the east end of the church several years ago to provide more space for the sanctuary.