Our History


During its 150+ years, Saint Paul’s has had a rich history, documented in A Parish Journey 1856-2006: Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia by local historian David R. Contosta in 2006 as part of the church’s 150th anniversary celebration.

Three of Saint Paul’s 10 rectors – the Rt. Revs. William Hobart Hare, Malcolm Endicott Peabody and James Russell Moodey – have gone on from Saint Paul’s to serve as bishops of our church. One Assistant Rector, Mary Douglas Glasspool, became the first openly lesbian woman to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church.  Many parishioners have been active in the diocese and national church.

The church sits on a tract of land that was purchased in 1856. In the same year a Chapel was built on the site by John E. Carver who superintended the construction of St. James the Less Church in East Falls, one of the most important Gothic Revival churches in America. The north side of the Chapel (now our parish hall) with its open bell-côte and perpendicular buttresses is almost identical to St. James.

In 1863 our rector William Hobart Hare wrote to our Sunday school children from Minnesota where an uprising of Sioux Indians had just been quelled. “There is a war raging in this state against them.” He concluded his letter, “They (the Sioux people) now call upon you, my dear boys and girls, for help…” Ten years later, Hare would become Bishop to the Great Sioux Nation.

In the middle of the night on April 9, 1865 news first reached Chestnut Hill of the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House. The little bell of our original Chapel rang out the good news of peace. The bell still sits in place ready to ring out “Peace on Earth.”

In November, 1903 at Saint Paul’s, plans were drawn up for Chestnut Hill Hospital.  The cornerstone of our current church was laid in 1928. The ceiling of the church is built like a boat, symbolic of the Ark and the boat of the Fishermen. The altar faces east, and the rose window is located to the west. The ornamental carvings in the altar rail include: grapes (the symbol of the sacrament of Holy Communion), pelican (the symbol of the atonement of Jesus) and the Pomegranate (the symbol of resurrection).  The church is adorned with many angels and rich with symbolism, read more about the 2016 publication: Church of Angels, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church.  This booklet is available for download from issuu.com.

In 1945 the Rector of Saint Paul’s became the second president of the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission dedicated to fighting racial and religious prejudice. He invited Eleanor Roosevelt to Saint Paul’s in 1949 to receive the first National Fellowship Award from the Commission.

In 1947, seven years before “Brown vs. the Board of Education,” our organist Tommy Dunn hired an African-American soprano for our church choir. Dunn went on to become director of the Handel and Haydn Society.

In 1989, St. Paul’s began rehabbing buildings in East Germantown. “St. Paul’s Rehabbers” incorporated itself in 1993 as Habitat for Humanity, Germantown. This organization is now part of Habitat for Humanity, Philadelphia.

“O go your way into his courts with thanksgiving and into his gates with praise.”