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A History of St. Johns Episcopal Church

Vernon-Rockville, Connecticut

Maxwell Toth

December 2023

Introduction & Nineteenth Century (1850s–1890s)

            The community we know today as St. John’s Episcopal Church in Rockville, Connecticut, began convening regularly for weekly services in the spring of 1855. Over the course of the next nineteen years and under the stewardship of multiple priests, the congregation met weekly at various points around Rockville, including the old Rockville Hotel lobby and “the Sears’ Block on Market Street,” the latter of which is today Brooklyn and High Streets. These weekly convenings were fixed times to celebrate the Eucharist and administer the sacrament of baptism.

           In June of 1872, the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut officially recognized the Rockville congregation as a parish and, under the leadership of the Rev. John Huntington, a church building was erected on a plot of farm land on Ellington Avenue. The first cornerstone was laid on October 2, 1874, and a dedication and opening service were held on December 22 of that same year. The Tolland County Journal noted that the opening service was held “in the presence of an audience that occupied all the available seats,” and that the church building was “tastefully painted” with a “pleasant and airy appearance,” as well as a Mason & Hamlin organ, gas fixtures, and carpeting. Today, this building is the Church of the Risen Savior, located at 9 Ellington Avenue.

            Records of the early days of St. John’s show that it was an active congregation rife with joy. The Rockville Journal noted that the church held a “Festival of the Holidays” in December of 1896—what we can call, perhaps, a precursor to the annual St. John’s Holiday Bazaar—which included a turkey supper and a Christmas booth of “pretty dolls, beautiful fancy work, [and] pillows and quilts.” The festival raised over two hundred dollars, or about $7,000 today. One year prior, St. John’s C.T.A Society (a sort of church temperance group) held an anniversary benefit at the Rockville Opera House; a dance card from the evening indicates the program featured live music from the Orchestral Club and St. John’s Minstrels. These benefits soon became a regular occasion.

            Toward the end of the century, formal bylaws and a vestry were established, as were lay groups such as the Women’s Aid Society (a precursor to what we now know as the ECW) and Men’s Guild. It is clear that St. John’s has always been a community of Christ followers dedicated to community building, outreach, and philanthropy.

Early Twentieth Century (1900s–1920s)

            As the nineteenth century became the twentieth century, St. John’s entered what the church’s centennial history booklet referred to as a period of “leisurely growth and improvement,” under the stewardship of the Rev. James George as rector. The early 1900s saw new painting, lighting, and heating, as well as the acquisition of a new organ and choir vestments. Church groups continued to flourish in their philanthropy and community involvement, with St. John’s making regular donations to the Infirm Clergy Fund, the Widows’ and Orphans’ Society, the Red Cross, and the World War I war effort, among other organizations and causes. In late spring of 1905, a newly built rectory was dedicated, and the church was formally consecrated by Presiding Bishop Chauncey B. Brewster, just over thirty years after its construction.

            In the early 1920s, St. John’s welcomed the Rev. Henry Buckland Olmstead as its rector, who would remain in the role for twenty-six years. Rev. Olmstead remains St. John’s longest-serving rector to date. Secondary sources credit much of St. John’s growth in the first half of the twentieth century to the leadership and involvement of Rev. Olmstead and his wife. His ministry was characterized as “long and fruitful.” During Fr. Olmstead’s tenure, the church celebrated its semicentennial anniversary, saw record amounts of confirmations, baptisms, and marriages; installed new chancel furniture, and dedicated the choir room. The Sunday School program also continued to thrive, as did the St. John’s choir groups. Rev. Olmstead retired in 1950; he and his wife died within days of each other in the spring of 1952.

Mid-Twentieth Century (1930s–1960s)

            The mid-twentieth century was St. John’s last chapter at its Ellington Avenue location. At the onset of the Depression, St. John’s, like many other organizations, saw its first deficit in years. However, by the end of the 1930s, “parish affairs were once more running smoothly.” St. John’s was a major contributor to the World War II war effort, and in the years after, church attendance grew due to an increase in relocation to the Tolland County area. In 1952, the General Convention was hosted in Boston, with St. John’s parishioners and clergy in attendance.

            The early 1960s saw the establishment of various building and facilities committees, to consider the construction of a new church building and rectory on Vernon Hill—the St. John’s we know and love today. A formal vote was taken in 1961; with a majority in favor, construction began soon thereafter. The Rev. James Grant, then-rector of St. John’s, presided over groundbreaking ceremonies that spring. The parish hall (named St. Mary’s Hall in 2023) was constructed in 1956, and was the original site for church services on Vernon Hill until the current sanctuary was built.

            The first service in the new building was held in February of 1968, with a dedication service held the following spring. 1969 also saw the installment of the Rev. Robert Wellner as rector, who would remain at the helm of St. John’s until 1988.

Late Twentieth Century to Present (1970s–2020s)

            Our present church building on Hartford Turnpike was consecrated on January 30, 1988, by Presiding Bishop Arthur Walmsley. That same year, St. John’s welcomed the Rev. James “Jim” Kellaway as rector, with a formal installment service being held on May 15, 1989. Into the twenty-first century, St. John’s continued to flourish. In 1991, eighteen members of St. John’s participated in a diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Youth participation, particularly, grew—toward the end of the ‘90s, the acolytes of St. John’s, totaling ten, attended both the National Acolyte Festival in Washington, D.C., and the annual Connecticut Acolyte Festival. Additionally, St. John’s maintained partnerships with both Habitat for Humanity and held annual retreats to the Episcopal Center in Ivoryton.

            In 1998, the Memorial Garden at St. John’s was dedicated, and its garden altar was consecrated. The Memorial Garden continues to be the site of occasional worship services and a dedicated space for prayerful meditation and reflection. Ten years later, in 2008, St. John’s welcomed the Rev. Virginia W.G. Army as its rector following the retirement of Fr. Jim Kellaway. Rev. Army was the first woman to serve as rector of St. John’s, thirty-two years after the General Convention approved the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1976. The 2010s and early 2020s saw membership growth at St. John’s, mainly due to two parish mergers: in the fall of 2017, St. John’s of East Hartford was formally merged with St. John’s of Vernon. Six years later, in the fall of 2023, St. Mary’s of Manchester was formally merged with St. John’s of Vernon.

            Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, St. John’s greatly increased its virtual presence via weekly livestreams of the Eucharist and sermons. To this day, St. John’s continues to offer a livestream option for those who may wish to join remotely on Sunday mornings. Following Rev. Army’s retirement in the spring of 2021, St. John’s welcomed the Rev. Marc G. Eames as our new rector in early 2022. Fr. Eames remains our rector to this day. In addition to our priests-in-charge, St. John’s has been the host parish of numerous seminarians and deacons in years past; we welcomed the Rev. Scott J. Stevens as our parish deacon in the fall of 2023.

            St. John’s continues to be an active and vibrant congregation in 2023. We maintain ministries with the Cornerstone Foundation, Hawkwing, Inc., the Boy Scouts of America, and Camp Washington, among other groups. St. John’s hosts regular fundraisers, particularly around the holiday season; our annual nut sale and Christmas Bazaar are well-known throughout the Hockanum River Valley. Church fellowship and service groups, such as the Men’s Ministry, the Women’s Spirituality Group, and the Altar Guild, Knitting Group, and Book Club; continue to flourish, as do weekly Bible studies. Recently, St. John’s has taken part in diocesan initiatives pertaining to both social justice and environmentalism. Music, too, remains a vital part of our church life; the choir of St. John’s has existed from the church’s inception. In all our efforts, both past and present, we “seek to worship God in the beauty of holiness, serve our community, and one another.”


About the Author

Max Toth has been a member of St. Johns of Vernon since birth. He was baptized in the summer of 2000 and confirmed on the Feast of the Ascension in 2016. A former acolyte, he involves himself in the life of St. Johns at present as both a lay reader and minister of communion. Max holds a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies and French from Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.


The author acknowledges and thanks Jean Luddy, Director of the Vernon Historical Society Museum, and Carol Chappel, volunteer at the Vernon Historical Society, for their research assistance and providing of materials. The author also thanks all those who contributed to the compilation of St. Johns Episcopal Church: An Illustrated History. Current church members who may be eager to learn more are encouraged to leaf through this scrapbook, located in the parish office.


“Bazar [sic} Given by St. John’s Society a Great Success.” The Rockville Journal, 3 Nov. 1898, p. 1.

Booklet compiled by St. John’s Church and the Diocese of Connecticut. Centennial Celebration: St. John’s Parish, Rockville, Connecticut, 1855–1955. St. John’s Church, Rockville. 1955.

“Festival of the Holidays.” The Rockville Journal, 17 Dec. 1896, p. 1.

Lutz, Hazel P. “Vanished Market Street.” Vernon Vignettes, vol. 2, Vernon Historical Society, 1970.

Scrapbook compiled by parishioners and clergy of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Vernon, Connecticut. St. John’s Episcopal Church, Vernon, Connecticut: An Illustrated History. 2008.

Sterner, Daniel. “St. John’s Episcopal Church, Vernon (1874).” Historic Buildings of Connecticut, 8 June 2014, Accessed 26 Dec. 2023.

St. Johns C.T.A. Society, accession no. 2000.46.006. Dance card, Rockville Opera House. 25 Sept. 1895. Courtesy of Vernon Historial Society.

“The New Episcopal Church.” The Tolland County Journal, 25 Dec. 1874, p. 2.