The history of St. Thomas encompasses over three hundred years and predates the founding of the town. In 1696 Bath County was established and St. Thomas Parish was formed soon afterwards. Four years later, the Rev. Thomas Bray, founder of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.), shipped books from England to St Thomas Parish with the Reverend Daniel Brett for the first public library in the colony.
During the early years, the parish was without a church building or minister. Records indicate that a small group began holding services with lay readers in local homes around 1701. Land on the western bank of Bath Creek was laid out as a glebe around 1706, although there was not yet a minister to farm these lands.
In October 1734 the vestry and church wardens wrote to the Society for the Propagation Of the Gospel in Foreign Parts saying, “We are now building at our own proper Costs a small church (being the only one in the whole Province), but we fear our abilities will be far short of completing and adorning the same as becomes the temple of God.” Within several years the church was built and ministers came.
In 1823 St. Thomas was formally accepted into the Diocese of North Carolina and consecrated in 1826. Until the Civil War, St. Thomas was served by at least fifteen clergymen. In 1840 a fierce storm blew off the roof and damaged the interior. As part of the restoration, new furniture and fixtures were installed reflecting the Victorian era. Some of these items remain, now historic as well. The subsequent fortunes of the parish were hampered by fluctuations in the numbers of members and clergy and the deterioration of the building.
In 1936 the bishop sent The Rev. A.C.D. Noe to St. Thomas, charged with the task of preserving and restoring the church building as an historic treasure. The restoration began in earnest in 1939 under the direction of The Rev. Noe and Robert B. Davis, a local self-taught architect and builder. As this work went on, Fr. Noe also raised an awareness of Bath’s historic significance.
Following Fr. Noe’s retirement in 1953, St. Thomas again suffered from a lack of leadership. Various clergy and lay readers held service, often to fewer than a dozen people. In 1976 a coalition was formed serving St. Thomas and fifteen other small churches. Three priests and many lay readers held services on a rotating basis. In 1987 the coalition was disbanded. As the parish was still a mission church, Bishop Sanders sent The Rev. John Bonner as vicar. A dedicated, determined and resourceful priest, he helped increase the membership and prepared the congregation to call a resident pastor.
The Rev. J. Gary Fulton was called in 1988 and, after a period of serving several churches, he became full-time rector. Under his leadership, the church flourished, growing in number and vitality. Fr. Fulton retired in 1999.
The Rev. Ray Sousa was our rector from 2001 to 2009. Under his guidance, St. Thomas continued to thrive. Structural repairs to all the buildings and new plantings were accomplished in time for the tri-centennial celebration of Bath, the oldest town in North Carolina.
St. Thomas actively participated in the yearlong celebration of the 300th anniversary of the incorporation of the colonial town of Bath. Appropriately, since St. Thomas was originally a parish of the Church of England, there was a celebration of St. George’s Day weekend in April of that year. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Cary, officiated for overflow crowds using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
The Rev. Eric Zubler and his family arrived in Bath the first week in May 2010. His first service at St. Thomas was Mother’s Day, May 9th. St. Thomas continued to grow in membership and participation in the church's ministries under Fr. Zubler's leadership.
In January 2013, Fr. Zubler announced his resignation to answer a call as Associate Rector for Christion Formation at St. Simon’s on the Sound Episcopal Church in Fort Walton Beach, FL. We are graced to have two excellent supply priests, Fr. Jim Horton and Fr. Gary Fulton, our organist and choir director, Stephen Vaughn, to lead our worship services during this time of transition. And we are blessed with a congregation that continues to be highly involved in our worship and pastoral care ministries.
St. Thomas is featured in the January 2014 issue of Outreach NC. This is the first article in a series that will feature the historic churches in the state.
Photo by Thomas Draper of church interior, circa 1900.
History Sketch photographed by Thomas Draper, circa 1900.
Church circa 1905.
Church circa 1907.
Church circa 1910
St. Thomas Church and grounds, circa 1927.