Calvary Episcopal Church was built during the ministry of the Reverend Joseph Blount Cheshire in the stormy years between 1859-1868. The architect, William Percival, originally proposed that the exterior of the building be of stucco over brick and that the towers be of wood. In the final plan the brick exterior was left bare, brick was used in the towers, buttresses were added, and the church was lengthened by one bay.
A search for earlier Episcopal endeavor in Edgecombe County would yield little. The original Church of England parish in the County, St. Mary’s, was located eight miles northeast of Tarboro and was fairly large considering the small size of the community. The parish church was finished about 1749. Today not a trace remains of St. Mary’s. Its register was burnt as wastepaper and the congregation was attracted to a new wooden church in the newly incorporated Town of Tarboro. This new church (c. 1760) is thought to have been built on land now belonging to Howard Memorial Presbyterian Church.
With the upheaval of the Revolutionary War, the Church of England was virtually outlawed. No established church of the Anglican type filled the vacuum, so church buildings crumbled and congregations dispersed, either to other Protestant denominations or to wait out years bereft of spiritual leadership. Finally in 1784 Samuel Seabury was consecrated Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, but not until 1819 was the congregation of Trinity Church formed in Tarboro by the Reverend John Phillips. His ministry covered the area between Raleigh and Washington, N.C., and by 1822 his communicants had dwindled in number from ten to four.
By 1833 the Church had begun to grow. In this year the Congregation of Calvary Church incorporated, formed a vestry, and called a minister. In 1834 Town Lot No. 44 was granted to the Vestry by a trust left by an eighteenth century clergyman, the Reverend Henry John Burgess. On this lot, the southern part of the present Churchyard, a small frame church was built in 1840.
Gray's 1882 map of Tarboro shows this church, which was then St. Luke's Episcopal Church, in the southwest corner of Calvary churchyard. This church was still in use in the late 1920s.
All who are thankful for Calvary Church and its beautiful churchyard should mark well October 1842, for it was then that the Reverend Joseph Blount Cheshire arrived to head the Parish. In addition to caring for the spiritual lives of his congregation, he saw to it that the Churchyard was fenced in, and then proceeded to plant it full of trees and shrubs, both native and exotic.
The congregation, small as it was, soon outgrew its church and as plans to build a larger church jelled, the Vestry acquired a half-acre lot on the northeast side of the Churchyard. An adjacent half-acre was given to the church by a group of prominent citizens, not one of whom was at the time a baptized churchman.
In 1859 the thirty-three communicants of Calvary Church began work on the new building with a subscription of $9,000. The plans called for a church which could accommodate a congregation of 500. The population of Tarboro in that year was around 1,200. By 1860 the walls, towers, spires, roof and floors were done. But then the War Between the States began, and the windows and doors were boarded up, to stay that way until 1866. In the brief interim between the end of the War and the grim repercussions of Reconstruction, a healthy cotton crop enabled the parishioners of Calvary Church to finish the Church. It was consecrated on May 10, 1868.
The original furnishings in the chancel were of wood, carved from great blocks of oak left from the building of the Confederate Ram Albemarle. The altar remains in the Church but the pulpit and lectern have been moved to All Saints’ Chapel to make way for memorials.
In 1972 Calvary Church received a challenge gift from D. Russell Clark for a new organ. The members of the parish responded to this challenge and raised sufficient funds not only to purchase a new instrument but also to refurbish the church interior.
Larger memorials include the Cheshire Memorial Parish House and All Saints’ Chapel, built in 1922. The brick cloister was built in 1926 as well as the brick wall surrounding the Churchyard.
The Churchyard itself is of course a memorial to generations of faithful friends of the Church. To sample the outcome of Dr. Cheshire’s planting and to see the gravestones in all their variety, the visitor might, when coming out of the Church into the cloister, turn east, or right, coming first to the gable-shaped tombstone of Mary Sumner Blount. She was the daughter and wife of Revolutionary War heroes, General Jethro Sumner and General Thomas Blount, a Representative of North Carolina. With Mrs. Blount’s trust fund, the congregation bought land and erected the first frame church, later replaced by the present church.
As you proceed through the northeast quadrant of the Churchyard, you will see English yews, live oaks, Japanese magnolia and American holly, and a number of nineteenth century tombstones. Against the east wall behind the Church are a number of poignant infants’ graves, flanked by a pair of huge Chinese firtrees. At the end of this path, on the southeast corner, you will find a gnarly old cork tree, grown by Dr. Cheshire from an acorn sent from Spain. Set into the wall near the tree are the headstones from the graves of Lawrence and Sabra Irwin Toole, whose descendants take up a good percentage of the Churchyard. These stones date from the eighteenth century and were moved here from Shiloh to preserve them from the erosion of the Tar River.
Backtrack and turn west, to pass the grave of William Dorsey Pender, the youngest general in the Confederate Army, killed in action at age 29. His grave is arrayed with cannon balls. Near him lies buried his kinsman, Col. John T. Mercer of the 21st Georgia Chargers. Towering above these graves are incense cedars and hemlocks, and near the south door of the Church are a pair of silver firs, very rare to this area.
Near the south gate of the Churchyard is the headstone of Col. William Lawrence Saunders, who collected and compiled the colonial records of North Carolina and whose courage under interrogation is recorded by the inscription, "I decline to answer." Camellias, azaleas, sweetholly, and boxwood fill the southwest quadrant, and the main path to the Church is guarded by two ancient trees, an incense cedar and a live oak. To the south of the path are the memorials to Joseph Blount Cheshire, and to his son, the Bishop of North Carolina. Farther down in the southwest corner are the graves of Bertram Brown, a beloved rector of the Church, and of Henry Toole Clark, first president of the William Dorsey Pender Chapter of the U. D. C.
The large northwest quadrant is filled with elaborate Victorian memorials, and against the west wall of the cloister is a large plot of ivy with few markers. This was the servants’ plot, as attested by several stones with tender sentiments. In this quadrant are many interesting trees, Lebanon cedar, Chinese hawthorns, a magnolia macrophylla which sheds enormous leaves, osage orange, and ginko, and near All Saints’ Chapel, the children’s favorite, a buckeye.
For more information, please read the book, A Goodly Heritage - The Story of Calvary Parish, by Jaqueline Drane Nash
This photo was taken in the early 1920s when the church was nearly a century old. At this time it was being used as a Sunday School. The photo shows the “Infants Choir” lined up for a service.
The dark-haired girl in the front, center of the picture is Josephine Arnold (Worsley).