Saint Paul’s Church National Historic Site | HISTORY OF SAINT PAUL’S CHURCH

Interior of Saint Paul's Church restored back to its original appearance

Interior of Saint Paul’s Church restored back to its original appearance

The roots of Saint Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon, New York, date back to 1665 when the town of Eastchester (in Westchester County) was founded by settlers from Connecticut. By the 1690s, a wooden church had been built that also served as the town hall and courthouse. At the time it was called the Church of Eastchester. Many of the original parishioners were Puritans: people opposed to the Anglican Church, the official church of England. Forced to abide by Anglican rules, tensions between Puritan and Anglican members remained high up through the American Revolution.

It wasn’t until 1763 that construction began on the church that stands today, which is just about the time that problems between the American colonies and the British government began to develop. By the time the real fighting began in 1775, the building remained unfinished.

Church members, and even families, were divided over which side to take in the revolution. The church’s reverend, Samuel Seabury, preached that the congregation should remain loyal to England. Of course, not all members agreed.

The Battle of Pell’s Point broke out only a mile away from the church on October 18, 1776. George Washington’s army was retreating to White Plains after serious defeats in Manhattan when 4,000 British and Hessian troops—German mercenaries who fought for the British—attempted to cut off their escape route. Seven hundred and fifty American troops under the command of Colonel John Glover took a stand at Pell’s Point and were able to hold off the British long enough for the bulk of Washington’s men to reach White Plains, which is about ten miles north of Eastchester.

In the aftermath, the church was used as a hospital by the Hessians. In need of firewood, they tore down the original wooden church. At least five Hessians who died while at the church were buried in a mass grave in the cemetery and were only discovered later when new graves were being dug. A tombstone marks the spot today. American soldiers who died throughout the war are also buried in Saint Paul’s Church Cemetery.

Model depicting the new church and the destroyed old church

Model depicting the new church and the destroyed old church

Marker for the mass grave of Hessian soldiers

Marker for the mass grave of Hessian soldiers

Once the British occupied New York City to the south and Americans set up camps in northern Westchester County, the middle ground where Saint Paul’s was located became a No-Man’s Land and was subject to pillaging by both sides. In fact, American troops had a skirmish with the British near the church when they attempted to steal medical supplies at a time when the British were once again using the building as a hospital. Many of the Americans were killed or captured. The church was used as a hospital, barracks, and a supply depot by both sides at different times during the war.

Construction on the church began again after the war. Services were held beginning in 1787, but the building wasn’t officially completed until 1805. A result of the American victory was the abolishment of a national religion, so the Puritans were free to worship as they pleased. In 1795, the church became an Episcopal congregation, using the name Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church for the first time.

Saint Paul’s was one of the few churches to retain its bell during the war, as many were melted down to manufacture weapons for the Continental Army under orders of George Washington. The bell actually hung in the belfry of the old church, but it was hidden by parishioners when the war broke out. It now hangs in the steeple.

By the 1940s, the area surrounding Saint Paul’s Church was turning from a residential area into an industrial area, resulting in a decrease in church membership. In addition, after 150 years of continuous use, the church and cemetery were in poor condition. A restoration committee was formed, headed by President Franklin Roosevelt’s mother, Sara. She was a descendant of one of the early vestrymen. The church closed in late 1940 and repairs began in 1942. The goal was to restore the church back to its original appearance as much as possible based on the architectural plans that were still in the possession of the church. The newer stained glass windows were removed and replaced with clear glass, the pulpit was moved back to the south wall of the church, and the pews were built and arranged per the original specifications (they had been replaced with bench seating). Most of the renovations were done to the interior, for removing additions to the exterior was beyond the funding for the project. The church was rededicated and opened on May 3, 1942, and declared a National Historic Site by President Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, no amount of publicity or renovation could change the decline in church membership, and the last service was held at Saint Paul’s in 1977. The church became part of the National Park system in 1980, though it didn’t open to the public until 1984. Today visitors can learn about Saint Paul’s Church, the Battle of Pell’s Point, and the history of Eastchester in the Visitor Center museum, then take a guided tour of the church and its cemetery.

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Last updated on May 31, 2020
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