Did you ever wonder what is the oldest church in the South? The oldest church (of English foundation) in America? They are actually the same church, and what is more, it is the oldest continually standing brick building in America as well as the only original Gothic structure in America: The Old Brick Church, also known as St. Luke’s, on the Isle of Wight in Virginia.
Thirteen years before the religious-freedom–seeking Pilgrims planted Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, about 150 Englishmen landed on the shores of Virginia to form Jamestown, the first English settlement in America. Their first act was to pray, giving thanks to God; their second to erect a makeshift church. Captain John Smith described it as an “awning or old sail which we hung to three or four trees to shadow us from the sun; our walls were rails of wood; our seats unhewn trees till we cut planks; our pulpit a bar of wood nailed to two neighboring trees. In foul weather we shifted into an old rotten tent, for we had few better.” Thus the first English act on American soil was to establish the first English church on American soil.
That was 1607. Twenty-five years later, in 1632, zealous Anglican Protestants erected the Old Brick Church on the site where it now stands, using most of the same bricks that hold it together today. Several colonial churches, some of them brick, preceded St. Luke’s, but none of them have survived this one enduring example of the Gothic architectural style these early English Americans used for their places of worship.
Had they the means and the time, these ardent heirs to the Protestant Reformation might have built cathedrals. Despite the times and limitations of nascent colonial life—including Indian massacres, famine, disease, and other frontier hardships—the Old Brick Church gives testimony to the Virginian plantation settlers’ deep faith and cathedral-longings. A steeply pitched roof tops three-foot-thick walls supported by stepped buttresses. Arched windows feature divides made of brick to form a Y-tracery. A tower greets the worshiper at the western wall with an arched doorway crowned by a small triangular pediment. It was not a cathedral but a “room church,” rectangular and relatively small. But the Gothic elements are plain enough, and St. Luke’s is a monument to the architectural and spiritual heritage of a medieval England transplanted to a burgeoning new world.
In the mid-1600’s prominent and wealthy Isle of Wight resident Colonel Joseph Bridger, whose bones rest beneath the church floor and whose descendants populated the church into the 1800’s, led the growing community to finish out the interior of the church building with as much grandeur as the exterior but with the Jacobean elements of a more “modern” England. This included Tuscan columns formed from a single tree trunk, the turned balusters of the rood screen and kneeling rail, and the original wooden sounding board, hung above the pulpit to augment the priest’s voice—and hanging there still.
The priest’s voice is still heard in St. Luke’s, although not as frequently as the every-Sunday it once was. The congregation abandoned the ancient edifice in the mid-1800’s to construct their current house of worship, now the oldest church building in downtown Smithfield. But the treasured old building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark, is not forgotten: the parish community returns to hold services at St. Luke’s about four times a year, and this oldest of Anglican-American structures is a favored spot for some of the most beautiful and memorable wedding ceremonies. Although nearly four hundred years have passed since the first prayers were uttered beneath its arched ceiling, the Old Brick Church still resonates with the faith of the nation’s earliest fathers while blessing and intriguing the twenty-first–century Americans who make pilgrimage to the shadow of her ancient walls.