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A Brief History of Grace Episcopal Church


Rockbridge County settled predominantly by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians.


Encouraging education, the Rockbridge County Presbyterians founded Augusta Academy, which later was moved to Lexington and named, Liberty Hall, from which Washington and Lee University was founded.


The diocese of Virginia was formed for the entire State of Virginia under the Protestant Episcopal Church of America which came from the provincial Anglican Church. The Diocese of Southwestern Virginia in which Lexington is located was founded in 1919. There are three dioceses in Virginia: Virginia, Southern Virginia and Southwestern Virginia.


Virginia Military Institute was founded on November 11, by 2 Episcopalians from the tidewater section of Virginia: Francis Smith, who was the first superintendent, and Professor Thomas Williamson. These two professors and their wives helped establish the Episcopal Church in Lexington. Many cadets from the Tidewater and the first nine VMI superintendents were Episcopalians.


“Friends of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Lexington and Buchanan” was organized and Latimer Parish was formed. This joint parish between Rockbridge and Botetourt counties lasted until 1846.


Ground was obtained by Superintendents Francis Smith and Grace Episcopal Church was built of brick on the corner of Washington and Lee campus. It seated 300. This was the beginning of the present parish in Lexington.


The Rev. William Nelson Pendleton, became rector. He had attended West Point Academy with General Robert E. Lee, and he formerly had established Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA. During the Civil War he was appointed Lee’s Lt. Gen. of Artillery in the Confederate Army, but he returned and remained rector until 1883. Also in 1853 Supt. Francis Smith bought the S.B. Dorman house on Lee Avenue to be used as a parsonage.


General Robert E. Lee became President of Washington College and he also was unanimously elected to the Grace Church vestry, and became senior warden eight days after his arrival in Lexington.

Following the Civil War, the new Grace Church had severe financial difficulties with only 99 communicants, including Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury, a VMI professor and noted “Pathfinder of the Seas.” Everyone was very poor due to the destruction of VMI and much of Lexington by General David Hunter and the Union Army.


Expansion within the parish brought great plans to build a new church building. General Lee’s last official act was to chair the vestry meeting where such plans were approved. He had sat in a cold wet room in wet clothing; went home, collapsed while asking the blessing for dinner, and he died 14 days later. Dr. Pendleton buried him at Lee Chapel, using Mrs. Lee’s prayer book (which we have on loan).


The new building plans moved quickly with funds being raised through bazaars, ice cream socials, sale of plum puddings, and sale of an afghan knitted by Mrs. Pendleton. Larger donations were received: $50 from the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher; $50 from Horace Greeley; $1200 from William W. Corcoran from Washington, D.C.; and $1000 each from Miss Ann Upsher Jones of New York, Mr. Moro Philips of Philadelphia, PA, and Mr. William H. Vanderbilt. George Custis Lee gave $5,000 and later another $6,000, a total of $11,000!


The congregation met in the completed basement of the new building.

January 19, 1883

The first service, in the unfinished upper part of the church, was the funeral of the Rev. William Nelson Pendleton, longtime rector, 

April 29, 1884

The first regular service was held in the completed building.


The debt was paid off and Grace Memorial Church was officially consecrated.


The name was changed from Grace Memorial to the R.E. Lee Memorial Church.


The first kneeling cushions and electric lights were installed.


All parish meetings, Sunday School classes, parish dinners, choir rehearsals, etc. were held in the Undercroft (basement) of the Church. Vestry meetings, Bible classes and small group events were held at the Rectory where the rector had his office.


The adjoining Parish House was consecrated during the rectorship of the Rev. Thomas van Braam Barrett. It is used for Sunday School, Bible classes, offices,  and various parish and community events.


Meeting of the Vestry held on September 18, 2017, the Vestry voted to restore the name of the Parish to Grace Episcopal Church.


The Chancel and Nave were renovated to their current state

December 4, 2021

Rector Tuck Bowerfind appoints the LGBTQ Welcoming Task Force to develop a program of opportunities to learn about gender, and draft a Welcoming Statement for the consideration of the parish membership

About the Church Building


The Present Building for Grace Episcopal Church | 1884

Funds were raised through bazaars, ice cream socials, sale of plum puddings, and sale of an afghan knitted by Mrs. Pendleton, the rector’s wife. Larger donations from near and far: $50 from the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher; $50 from Horace Greeley; $1,200 from William W. Corcoran of Washington D.C., and $1,000 each from Miss Ann Upsher Jones of New York, Mr. Moro Philips of Philadelphia, PA and Mr. William H. Vanderbilt, and $5,000 from Mrs. Warren Newcomb of New Orleans, LA. George Custis Lee gave $5,000 and later another $6,000 for a total of $11,000!




The limestone came from a quarry about a mile from town, belonging to Mrs. James J. White, wife of the professor of Greek at Washington College.


The rector, Dr. William Pendleton watched every stone put into the building, but died before it was completed. His funeral was the first service in the undercroft (basement) of the unfinished church.


The congregation worshiped in the Undercroft before the church was completed and services finally began upstairs in 1884.




In the summer of 1884 VMI Supt. Francis H. Smith, presented the church with an 1850 pound bell for bell tower. The bell was molded by the Moneely Company, Troy, New York. It was inscribed “Gift of Sarah Henderson Smith, in memory of her first-born, Anna Marsden Smith, May 12, 1846 – May 8, 1884. “O Come let us worship.”




EAST SIDE (on the right side of the nave)

“In memory of Elizabeth Weaver Cross (1856 – 1927)”

The Christian Sacraments window given by her daughter, Mrs. George Holbrook Barber, who was married here in 1914 to a William and Lee graduate.


Letcher/Holt memorial for Mary Susan Letcher, mother, and Miss Margaret Holt, aunt, of three sons of Governor John Letcher. Mrs. Letcher was one of the first Episcopalians in town.


General Francis H. Smith (1812 – 1890) memorial given by friends and cadets. General Smith was known as the father of this church. He was one of the first Vestrymen. He was Superintendent of VMI for 50 years and a zealous and earnest church worker.


Lt. Col. Alexander Swift Pendleton memorial, rector 1853 – 1883. On the Pendleton’s Golden Wedding celebration many presents of gold were made and part of these were used for this stained glass window.


 “To the glory of God, in loving memory of Everett H. Brown, Jr., (1888 – 1951) and Everett H. Brown, III (1920 – 1945).” Glass signed by O. H. Balano. Given by Mrs. Ruth Brown Shebly, wife and mother; and by daughter and sister, Mrs.Elizabeth (Brown) Carson.


CHANCEL WINDOW (over the altar)

The Lee window given by the vestry in memory of R. E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee, at the opening of the new church in 1884. It represents the Resurrection and is a replica of a window in a church in Rome. The inscription: “Numbered with Thy saints in glory everlasting.”


WEST SIDE (from organ pipes back)

Norgrove memorial for two young brothers killed in battle within three days of each other: William A. Norgrove killed in Mississippi in 1863, aged 22; and Edward W. Norgrove killed at Chancellorsville, VA in 1863, aged 19. Given by their mother, Mrs. Henry Norgrove.


Lt. Francis Thomas Glasgow killed in Korea in 1952 at age 24. Glass done by Charles Connick, Boston, MA, and installed around 1955. Given by his parents Mr. and Mrs. Charles Glasgow, and sister, Conde Glasgow Feddeman.


Lesley Elizabeth Bentley memorial, killed in automobile accident on February 12, 1971. She had been a medical technologist on board SS HOPE in Nicaragua, hence the Christ the Healer motif of the window. “May Light Perpetual Shine on Her.” Given by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Bentley.


ROSE WINDOW (at rear of nave, above balcony)

Memorial for Miss Sophie Newcomb, only child of Mrs. Warren Newcomb, who had given so generously to the church’s building fund ($5,000) in 1880. The window installed by the Vestry.



Gifts of Mrs. Paul Welles (Elizabeth Ashe Salt Welles) in memory of her husband, Professor of Modern Languages at VMI for 20 years. The professor had complained about being bothered with the light streaming from these upper windows during service. The gift was in hopes of relieving that problem. 



The tablet on the wall in the Chancel above the organ console is for the Rev. William Bryant, first rector of the old church, and was given by his son.


The tablet on the opposite wall in the Chancel is for the Rev. Dr. William Nelson Pendleton, rector from 1853 – 1883, given by the vestry with the inscription “Faithful unto Death.” Of note is that in 1869 Dr. Pendleton presented 69, mostly students and cadets, to Bishop Whittle for Confirmation.


The handsome tablet on the northwest wall of the nave, made by Lamb, is in memory of Col. Thomas H. Williamson, and given by a daughter, Mrs. John B. Purcell of Richmond. Col. Williamson was one of the first Episcopalians in Lexington who helped establish the present parish. He was a devoted vestryman and served as a professor at VMI. He was the first superintendent of the Sunday School.


The eight-foot quartered oak Altar was installed in 1932 at the time of extensive remodeling of the church. It was given as a memorial for Mrs. John Lyle Campbell.


The Pulpit, made by Lamb, was given by Mrs. Gilham for her husband, Col. William Gilham, and their daughter. Col. Gilham was Commandant at VMI before the Civil War. He and his wife were the first persons to be Confirmed in the old church.


The Lectern, made by Gorham, was presented by Mrs. George Robinson of Louisville, KY, and Mrs. Richard Sharp of Wilkes-Barre, PA, in memory of their father and mother, Col. and Mrs. William Preston Johnston. Col. Johnston was the eldest son of General Albert Sidney Johnston. After being confined in a northern prison, the Col. became an ardent churchman. He was professor of History at Washington College, and he and his wife were Confirmed in the old church.


The Hymn Board is a memorial to Miss Rose Pendleton and given by the Rector’s Guild. Miss Rose had directed the choir for many years.


The Communion Rail is in memory of General William Nelson Pendleton. It was given by friends and fellow soldiers, in testimony of “his devotion to duty, and unsullied purity of Character. 1903.”


The Lighting Fixtures in the Chancel (choir pew area) were given as a memorial for Mr. and Mrs. Henry Norgrove by their only surviving child, Mrs. Jay High Wills.


Lights in the Nave (main body of church). A tablet on the wall states: “This church is lighted to the memory of Henry Norgrove of Oxford, England and Matilda B. Norgrove, his wife. The first Episcopalians to come to Rockbridge County. ‘In Thy light we shall see light.’ “


The four silver small Alms Basons and Large Collection Plate were presented by Mrs. Tabb Lee in memory of her husband, General W.H.F. Lee, and his brother, General Custis Lee, sons of General Robert E. Lee, both of whom were in the Confederate Army. General W.H.F. Lee, a general of cavalry, was captured and while in prison, was sentenced to be shot as a retaliatory measure. General Cutis Lee asked to take his brother’s place, “as he he was unmarried and his brother had a wife.” The sentence was not executed and both of them lived to be most useful men. When General Custis Lee succeeded his father as president of Washington and Lee University, he took the greatest interest in the building of the new Episcopal Church, and gave $6,000 to help and later gave an additional $5,000 as an endowment to keep up the repairs.


The silver Communion Service (chalice, paten and ciborium) were given by Mr. G. W. Childs of Philadelphia, PA.


The brass Cross on the altar was presented by a Church in St. Louis, Mo, where an 1860 graduate of VMI, and a vestryman, Maj. Edward Cunningham, instigated the gift.


The pair of urn-shaped brass Vases, was bought with money given to Miss Mildred Lee by Mrs. Locke of Washington and Savannah, an aunt of ex-president Roosevelt.


The Font (for baptisms) was a gift of Dr. Sayre of New York, as a thank offering for the recovery of a son.


The brass Eucharistic Candles (pair of tall Candlesticks) are a memorial gift, as are the pair of Brass Seven-branch Candelabra, the brass Processional Cross, and the brass Missal Stand used to hold the Service Book.


Silk Brocade Hangings, clergy vestments and Eucharistic Veils and Burses are memorials for many of the devoted church members throughout the history of this church.


Most of the finely stitched Linens for the Altar and Communion Vessels have been lovingly made by members of this parish.




The original organ was built in Boston, MA, and paid for with money raised by Miss Eliza Maury, daughter of Commodore Matthew Fonaine Maury, a vestryman. Most of the money was given by Episcopal students and cadets who worshiped there. It was installed around 1883, when the new church building was opened.


In 1965 a new organ, built by Gress Miles, was installed after great discussions as to the placement of the pipes—in the balcony or in the chancel. The latter place was finally decided. The beauty, clarity and vitality of the tone speak for themselves. It had two manuals, seventeen voices, twenty-five ranks, and 1377 pipes. The organist then was Dr. George Roth, who also directed the men’s and women’s choir and bell choir. Occasionally a children’s choir, directed by Mrs. Melanie Fure, sang at Sunday services.

Casavant Frères Opus 3941 came to live at Grace Episcopal Church in 2021. The instrument has 23 rhanks, 1,351 pipes, 3 divisions, 2 manuals, 19 stopes, and 38 registers. More information can be found at


The story of how Opus 3941 came to be can be found here: 


2018 – Present: Martha Ann Burford, Minister of Music

2013 – 2017: Ted Bickish, Musical Director

Daniel Brinson Musical Director

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