On a day as fresh and glorious as the church that was being rededicated, the completely restored St. Thomas Methodist Episcopal Church, ca. 1857, was reopened to the public Oct. 3 before a large audience including Delaware Sens. Dave Lawson, R-Dover, and Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes.
Originally nestled in a wooded preserve near present-day Shortly, St. Thomas Methodist Episcopal Church served the religious, social and educational needs of rural Delawareans in that area from the 1850s until the 1920s, when religious services were discontinued. The abandoned church was moved to the Ag Museum grounds in 1994, where it was to become the heart and soul of the Delaware Agricultural Museum’s historic 1890s Village.
St. Thomas, even in its years of disrepair, presented itself as a beautiful representation of rural 19th century church architecture with its steeply pitched roof, arched windows and stained glass. The pews, chairs, pulpit and cast-iron stoves are original, while the doors once graced the entrance of Conley’s Chapel, ca. 1838, near Angola. The doors, tossed aside and destined for the trash heap following one of the chapel’s many renovation projects, were salvaged by Iilda (Sylvester) Bookhammer and stored in her family barn. Upon reading that St. Thomas Church had a mismatched set of temporary doors at the time the building was moved to the Ag Museum, Bookhammer stepped up to donate the Conley’s Chapel doors for use in St. Thomas.
As with most all historic buildings, preservation efforts present enormous time and cost challenges. But, determined to save St. Thomas as a special symbol of Delaware’s rural history and heritage, in 2019 the museum’s board of trustees allocated funds to restore the church to its former glory.
Museum volunteer and honored rededication ceremony guest Arthur Gene Carlisle generously donated $25,000 under the museum’s Adopt-A-Building program to support the costly preservation work. Other financial support has come from the State of Delaware Grant-in-Aid program as well as donations from private citizens and businesses. The museum’s St. Thomas Church Sponsor-A-Pew initiative has also generated much-needed financial assistance.
Now structurally sound with new framing, roof, cypress siding and repairs to its windows, walls, doors and floors, St. Thomas Methodist Episcopal Church is now available for religious services and wedding ceremonies.
The rededication event kicks off a month-long celebration at the Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village focusing on the museum’s historic buildings and collections. On display and for sale will be original artwork by talented local artist Natalie McIntyre of Lewes, depicting scenes from the museum’s 1890s Village and from its vast collection of antique farm machinery. McIntyre’s exhibit also includes a variety of scenes from across rural Delaware.
For more information, go to agriculturalmuseum.org.