It was October 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg was fresh in the minds of everyone. President Lincoln had not yet dedicated the cemetery for those who had fallen in battle. This was the time a group of men from Cape May County gathered to organize a new Episcopal parish. It was the first in the south east quarter of the state. Railroads had arrived and with them came summer visitors who wanted a place to worship. No doubt in the decades before folk had brought their prayer books for private devotion; but now there would be an organized congregation. The name they chose was St. John.
In 1865 a cornerstone was laid even before there were plans. There was some debate. The story in the parish is the Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward (of Alaska fame) wanted a big stone building. He had been recuperating in Cape May after being injured the night of Lincoln’s assassination. When he heard the price of a stone building he and everyone else agreed on a “carpenter gothic” high Victorian church. The work began in 1866 and the church was dedicated in 1870.
Services were in the summer with visiting clergy and even visiting choir members who came in on the train from Philadelphia. The center of focus for most parish meetings was Philadelphia as well. The original organizers had resigned in favor of a group of Philadelphians. There were arguments of course. Typical of the time there were tensions over how “high” the liturgy should be. The oldest furnishings of the church suggest that the more formal liturgical party prevailed at least some of the time. There were other tensions. There was a growing group of Episcopalians who were year round residents. The tensions probably involved class and money as well.
Matters came to a head in 1899 when the year round folk organized another parish on the last Sunday of Advent. The name chosen was Church of the Advent. Now there were two Episcopal Churches. Actually, on what would be Cape Island there were three. St. Peter’s by the Sea had been organized as a summer chapel in Cape May Point, originally a Christian retreat, in the 1870s. Advent began to worship in what had been a Presbyterian building and which is now Cape May Stage. The building was purchased by Annie Knight, owner of Congress Hall, and deeded to the new congregation.
During the years that followed St. John and Advent continued on their way. Advent eventually achieved parish status under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Paul Sturtevant Howe who served as rector from the teens into the early thirties. He was the first of what have been 14 rectors and a number of shorter term priests-in-charge. St. John continued to be served by visiting clergy during the summer. In 1935 an announcement recorded that clergy would come from as far as Pittsburgh and Richmond, Virginia. The announcement also noted that seats were “free.”
In the early 1930s it became clear that St. John could no longer be maintained as a separate congregation. It was in the depth of the Great Depression. After some debate the congregations were effectively merged in 1936 by having Advent acquire the assets of St. John. The combined parish came to be known as the Episcopal Church of the Advent/ St. John’s Chapel.
Both buildings were used but by the early 1950’s it was clear that Advent’s needed more work than could be paid for by the small congregation. As a result the members took up year round residence in the original St. John’s building and in 1953 engaged in extensive renovations.
The congregation changes during the year. The combination of year round and part time residents remains. There are those who are here year round, those who head to Florida for the winter, those who arrive in the summer and those who leave in the summer for St. Peter’s at Cape May Point. It is really a group of different congregations that come together as one. Strangely some of the biggest Sunday’s for attendance after Easter can be in August.
In the years that followed the move to old St. John’s the parish flourished as an institution in this small seashore town of Cape May. It gained a reputation for outreach funded by gifts and bequest from its members (especially the beloved Sid Hicks, a retired corrections officer known to everyone in the community). It also acquired a reputation for music. The acoustics of the church are really quite extraordinary, as is the pipe organ built in the first years of this century. The instrument is counted as one of the best in state. The organ attracts artists from far and wide for concerts. The space has for years attracted chamber groups and vocal ensembles. The church has served as the site for the Youth Choir Week of the Diocese since 1988.
From 2008 to 2017 the parish undertook and funded renovations which included new HVAC systems, energy efficiency, dedicated Sunday school space and making both the church and the adjoining parish hall accessible.
It is an extraordinary place with an extraordinary history. It has welcomed the diversity of our community from the first. Those who come are from all walks of life, farmers, teachers, retired military, bankers. Their faith backgrounds vary widely. Look at the congregation on Sunday morning. If you look closely you will see worship styles that mark just how diverse we are. Welcome at Advent is not just an open hand. It is a statement of who are and mean to be.