Sketches of Church Life in Colonial Connecticut
Being the Story of the Transplanting of the Church of England into Forty Two Parishes of Connecticut,
with the Assistance of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel
THE first notice of the Church of England services in Stamford was in 1705, when the Rev. George Muirson, being inducted Rector of Rye, made excursions eastward into the towns within the Connecticut colony, being licensed to minister to the Church of England people in the towns of Greenwich and Stamford by Lord Cornbury, Governor of the New York Colony, which had been founded three years before by the efforts of Col. Caleb Heathcote to extend the Church in the colonies of Great Britain. Owing to the condition of the country at that time, it was necessary for Mr. Muirson to be escorted on these ecclesiastical incursions of Col, Heathcote, "fully armed." They seem to have had occasional ministrations from other clergymen, but no settled minister. They felt a desire for liberty of conscience, which the government sometimes hindered and sometimes helped. The Puritans regarded this to be an unwelcome intrusion, but they were received by many, especially by the more recent emigrants.
In 1742, the Episcopalians made an appeal to the town for a grant of land on which to build a church. As the result of this appeal, the town agreed to give the professors of the Church of England "a piece of land to set a church upon." The lot was to be forty-five feet long and thirty-five feet wide. The lot granted as above was the southwest corner of the present lot held by St. John's parish, about where the transept of the new church stands. "It was at that time a rude ledge of loose rock, bounded on the north and east by an almost impassable swamp," from which it would appear that the town did not much favor the Church of England. The Episcopalians, however, thanked the town for the omen, that they were founded upon a rock. The cornerstone was laid in 1743, and the church was so far finished in 1747 that it could be used. The wardens then wrote to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in London, asking it to help them in their effort to get a clergyman of the Church of England to minister to them; hoping it would look favorably on their desire that Mr. Ebenezer Dibblee, a Congregational minister from Danbury, who had been lay reader one and one-half years, should receive Holy Orders in England and be sent by the Society to the Church. To go to England in those days was considered extremely perilous, as the voyage was necessarily long, besides the many dangers that might suddenly arise. One man sent out from Stamford was captured by the French, imprisoned by them and finally died of fever in England, while another had smallpox and also died. Mr. Dibblee was the third to be sent out. He returned in 1748, and became Rector of the church, holding that position fifty-one years. His immediate charge included Greenwich, Bedford, New Canaan, Darien, and Stamford. He was a genuine missionary, however, and made excursions to Rye, White Plains, Peekskill, Northcastle, Salem, Ridgefield, Danbury, Norwalk, Redding, Newtown, Huntington, and as far north as Litchfield, Sharon, and Salisbury. Much of his ministry was through the troublous times of the Revolutionary War, troublous especially to members of the Church of England, for many of the clergy were loyal to the King. One incident is told of a fearless Rector, who read the prayer for the King's Majesty with the muskets of American soldiers leveled at his head, having been forbidden to do so under peril of his life. During these days came General Tryon's raid and there was some fear of the British attacking the town of Stamford; the story has come down to me of my great-great-grandmother, sitting on the beach with her baby asleep on her lap, watching the British ships and waiting anxiously to see if they would pass a certain rock, knowing if they did so they could not land and the town would be safe. We know they did "pass that rock," going on to Norwalk, which they burned.
Mr. Dibblee was the first member of the College of Doctors or Council of Advice to the Bishop, and almost to the end he was often in the adjoining towns, preaching and baptizing.
From the Mother Church of St. John's have grown the parishes of Christ Church, Greenwich, with the churches at Round Hill, Glenville, Byram, and Riverside in that town; the parish of St. Mark's, New Canaan; St. Luke's, Darien; St. Andrew's, Stamford, and Emmanuel and St. Luke's chapels in Stamford. Mr. St. George Talbot, a parishioner and intimate friend of Dr. Dibblee, came to the colonies from England in the early part of the century, and employed his time and ample fortune in laboring to promote the growth of the Episcopal Church. He made a number of trips to the neighboring parishes with Dr. Dibblee when he was one hundred years old. He gave the glebe lands to St. John's, also a "silver tankard and salver for the use of the Holy Communion, to be kept for that use and no other forever," and they have been so kept and used for a period of one hundred and thirty years. He contributed largely towards the completion of the first church, also the old chapel in Greenwich which stood at the top of "Put's Hill," down the steps of which was the famous ride of Gen. Putnam, when the British troopers were balked in their pursuits.
The Lloyd library, composed of two hundred and fifty volumes, was presented about this time to St. John's by Henry Lloyd, another benefactor in the last century.
Dr. Dibblee died in 1709 and was buried in the old churchyard near St. Andrew's Church.
Three facts stand out in the history of St. John's parish: First, That it is the mother of many parishes, six daughters and five granddaughters; second, the harmony of its life has been only once broken by parochial discord; and third, it has been a parish of long rectorship, having had only five Rectors in a period of one hundred and fifty years.