In a manner akin to Christianity's origins described in the Book of Acts,
St. John the Evangelist's began in an upper room. In rented quarters in Fernwood, PA 116
years ago, some Episcopalians gathered for worship and Church School. Their infant years
guided by N.F. Robinson, Missionary in Charge, they soon made moves toward a building of
their own. By 1888 the congregation had constructed its own facility, at Baltimore and
A corner was turned when, in 1897, St. John's acheived parish status, the charter for
which hangs by our present book room. At this time the priest and first rector was William
T. Manning, later to become Bishop of New York. Manning's skills as an administrator found
good use as plans began for yet another new building. Moving ever westward, the church
chose a site at Lansdowne and Baltimore Avenues. After Manning's departure in 1898,
efforts were carried forth by his successor, Lyman Powell, who led the project to
completion in 1900. Generous laypersons, including a Henry C. Statzell, contributes
With building issues stabilized, the church turned its attention to mission. Encouraged by
Crosswell McBee, made rector in 1904, St. John's launched new congregations in Stonehurst
and Drexel Hill. First of the long-term rectors, McBee served until 1922, succeeded by
Charles Tuke. Two things happenned quickly after Tuke came on the scene. A new parish
house was added, and St. John's abolished the pew rental system. All seatings at worship
were declared "free" and not the holding of any one family. Plate offerings and
pledges, rather than yearly pew payments, now sustained the church's programs and
ministries. By 1929, membership had reached 889, with a church school enrollment of 403.
An additional development during Tuke's rectorship was the Pageant of the Nativity.
Beginning in 1927 under the direction of Freas B. Snyder, the Pageant first billed itself
as "Scenes from the Nativity". Parishoners in full costume reenacted the birth
of Christ, opening the performance to the community. Taking over the event in 1931,
Charles Henderson Jr. wrote a complete script and added numerous staging effects.
Presented initially every year, the Pageant, or Play, was eventually cut back to bi-yearly
performances, but continued up throgh 1965. Competition posed by TV in family living roms
may have diminished the Pageant's appeal, but for nearly forty years it meant
"Christmas" to the people of Lansdowne.
In addition to the Nativity Pageant, St. John's fell heir to another distinctive ceremony.
Back in 1936, Church School registrar Charles Meurer heard a naval officer describe a
Samoan Easter ritual. The islanders, he learned, would beflower a wooden cross to mark the
Lord's death-to-life transformation. Smitten by the idea, Meurer introduced it to St.
John's, where to this day it remains an Easter tradition.
Shortly before Tuke's retirement, one more change took place at St. John's. In 1951 an
extension was added to the parish house. A corridor containing numerous Church School
rooms with a chapel at the far end, it was designedby architect and parishoner Norman
Following Tuke as rector was Francis P. Davis, who in turn would serve an impressive
number of years. Coming in 1953, Davis would guide St. John's through significant
thresholds. By this time Lansdowne had developed in such a way to place its one Episcopal
church squarely in the middle of town. Building on this, Davis dubbed St. John's as
"the church in the heart of the community". More than ever the church opened its
doors to neighborhood enterprises. At one time or another a Boy Scout Troop, D.A.R.
Chapter, Friends of the Lansdowne Library, Eastern Star, A.A.R.P., and other organizations
benefiting the community found a welcome at St. John's.
In addition, Davis's tenure saw turnabouts in the larger Church, and the need for St.
John's to make a creative response. Women, long relegated to their own parish
organizations, now qualified to serve on vestries. Liturgical revision, held at bay for
most of the century, erupted as countless experimental rites. One Diocesan bishop
especially, in the 60's and early 70's, urged congregations to campaign against the War.
In all ot this, Davis led St. John's gently, encouraging change, yet avoiding abrasive
measures. As a result, parishoners headed into the 70's, if not front-runners, certainly
In 1976, after twenty-three years, Davis retired from St. John's. His successor, Hugh
Dickinson, followed shortly after. Continued was the ministry stemming from the
"heart of the community" the,e. In the late 1970's St. John's young adults
lauched a program called "Down Under". Mindful of children at loose ends during
weekday afternoons, the program offered activites betweek school hours and suppertime.
Years later, outreach ministry would extend to sheltering the homeless, and providing
meals to the hungry at Terminal Square.
Meanwhile liturgical revision taking place in the larger Churcher kept prodding St. John's
with the challenge to stay apace. Initially a "St. Primus" Parish, with
communion mothly at the late service, St. John's worked its way into eucharistic
centeredness. Today Eucharist is celebrated at both services each Sunday, Rite I at the
first and Rite II at the second. Also the church school program, formerly a seperate event
at 9:30, now takes place during the first part of the 10:30 worship.
While for years including a small number of African-American members, St. John's until
recently remained chiefly mono-racial. Within the past couple of years, however, our
makeup has changed noticeably. Two families from Nigeria, totalling twenty members, have
given us an inter-cultural flavor. Places of origin of other members now include South
Africa, India, Jamaica, Trinidad-Tobago, and Mexico. While feeling the pinch of age in the
form of building maintenance, St. John's take delight in its new-found role as God's world
At our entrance off Lansdowne Avenue stands a structure known as the Lych Gate. Erected in
1926 as a memorial to Lyman Powell, it serves multiple purposes in the neighborhood.
Passers-by sit down under its arch to read the paper or finish an ice cream. Some pass
underneath enroute to the church itself. The Lych Gate proclaims about St. John's:
"Use as you will. If you are tired, find rest; if hungry, find food; if you are
thirsty for God's love, then join us." On the eve of the twenty-first century, St.
John's awaits the Lord's commands. We strive to pursue what directions they might take.
But enduring will be the Lych Gate's message of welcome, service and love.