The St. Thomas Episcopal Church is one of the oldest congregations in Elizabethton and meets in one of the oldest churches in the city.
According to a history of the church compiled and written by former Vicar David Michael Doty in 1993, the earliest record of Episcopal church activity in Elizabethton comes from the diary of the Rev. William E. Skiles, a deacon associated with the Order of the Holy Cross in Valle Crucis, N.C. Traveling far and wide on his horse Henry, Mr. Skiles was instrumental in the founding of schools and churches throughout western North Carolina. In 1859 in a report to the Diocese of North Carolina he wrote about visiting a church in “Elizabethtown” in Tennessee.
However, Doty notes that the first documentation of Episcopal church services in Elizabethton occurs in the 1892 diary of Bishop Quintard, printed in the journal of the 1893 convention. It notes that Rev. C.F. Berry and the bishop visited the town of Elizabethton and had night services in the Presbyterian Church after having services in Johnson City.
An 1893 report noted that Bishop Gailor preached on March 14 at 8 p.m. in Elizabethton in the Methodist Church. As well as preaching, he also confirmed seven candidates presented by the Rev. Alexander C. Killheffer.
As early as 1894, the Elizabethton Episcopal congregation was known as Calvary Mission and had 15 communicants — three men and 12 women. The receipts for the year was $14.62, however, the expenditures totaled $10. The reported noted that the difference between the $14.62 and $18 was paid by Mr. Shoolbred, who was identified as John N. Shoolbred, a civil engineer for the Cooperative Town Company of Elizabethton as well as for the local railroad companies. According to Vicar Doty’s writings, Mr. Shoolbred was an Englishman, who emigrated to the United States in 1882, becoming a United States citizen in 1888. He was married at age 30 in 1889 to Mary G. “Mollie” Toncray, a daughter of Col. Charles P. Toncray of Elizabethton. Col. Toncray was a merchant and realtor, who served as Circuit Court Clerk of Carter County from 1862-66. The Colonel spent much time, effort and personal fortune in the organization of the Cooperative Town Company, and was also a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The history of the Episcopal church in Elizabethton is marked by struggles and difficulties. When the Town Cooperative failed in the early 1900s, the “church situation” declined as many of its members were associated with the Town Cooperative and moved to other places. In 1906 the local church was disbanded because of a lack of members.
Services began again in 1930, when in 1931, a “devoted band of congregants — 17 in number” reconstituted the church. St. John Episcopal Church of Johnson City held three Sunday afternoon services a month for the Elizabethton congregation.
In March of 1943, the small congregation began holding services at the present church, located on Second Street behind the Carter County Courthouse. The building was erected and used by the Elizabethton Southern Methodist congregation until it built a new church on E Street (now First United Methodist Church). The church had been built in the 1860s on a site given by Col. William Shell. His family donated the bricks for the church, which were made out of native clay and were fired on Col. Shell’s property.
The building was rented in 1941 by the Episcopalians for $100 a month, which was to be applied to the purchase price of $1360. Upon purchase of the building that same year the name of the church was changed from Calvary Episcopal to St. Thomas Episcopal. Major Charles Wulff III was listed as warden, Dr. A.B. Shipley as treasurer, and M.S. Bangs as clerk.
Although the building was free of debt, there was a scarcity of furnishings. The pews were on loan from Calvary Baptist Church, and the building itself was much in need of repair and refurbishing to be used as a place of worship. But it was gradually renovated, painted and papered with those expenses being fully paid as they accrued.
In Vicar Cody’s writings he noted that during the 1950s and possibly even before and into the mid-1960s one of the great social events of the year for Elizabethton was the church’s Valentine Day Tea or the “Silver Tea” as it was sometimes called because of the elegant use of the silver settings and services of its hosts. The event was sponsored by the women of St. Thomas Church as a fundraising event and proved for many years to be one of the highlights of the social season. “Not only did the members of St. Thomas Church attend, but also women from all over the town.”
One name long associated with the church was that of Rev. Charles Fredrick Wulff, who in 1958, began an eight-year residency with the congregations in Elizabethton and Mountain City.
The Parochial Report for 1958 shows 22 families and six individuals making up the 72 baptized persons attending the St. Thomas Church, 55 of whom were listed as communicants in good standing.
Vicar Cody writes: “Several lines from the minutes of the June 10 and July 1958 vestry meetings reflect a problem that has plagued St.Thomas for many years.
“There was a discussion of a budget adjustment, but no action was taken. After considerable discussion it was decided to send a letter concerning the poor financial condition of the church to those who are delinquent and a general statement on July 1, 1958.
“The vicar also brought up the subject of discussion of evangelism and expressed desire to discuss the subject at some time in the future. This was followed by a general discussion of attracting people to the church.”
Cody also writes that the 1950s and 1960s seemed to have established the habitat of the church for the next 30 years. The records of the parish including other correspondence reflect a continuous struggle in the church to meet the financial demands of supporting a full-time priest, a frustrated desire to move the church’s location to a more desirable place and into a better physical plant, a difficulty in acquiring and maintaining suitable quarters for the vicar, and an unwillingness among the lay people to participate in more than one service a week, and that only on Sunday mornings; and a desire to attract new people into the congregation, but little willingness to work to incorporate them into the church. Sunday morning attendance averaged eight at the early service and 30 at the later service.
During the early part of 1974 St. Thomas Church, as part of the Elizabethton Urban Renewal Project, the church purchased an extra lot next to the building and various improvements were made on the interior and exterior of the building. Also during this period the cathedral style lights were installed in the church. In 1977 with the help of member Bill Prendergast the parish hall was renovated. On the strength of a $60,000 gift from Teddy and Polly Sicos, the church was restored in 1980. The Parish Hall is named Sicos Hall in their honor.
During the ministry of Sandra Wooley in the late 1980s, Food for the Multitude was begun and soon thereafter other churches joined the effort. The ministry continues to this day, with a different church providing and serving the meal on a rotating basis each Saturday. It is a ministry that reaches out to as many as 300 to 400 persons each week.
On October 5, 1985, fire gutted the church, however, services were being held elsewhere at the time due to work being done on the church. The church was refurbished and it and the parish hall were dedicated on Oct. 22, 1989.
During the past year a new addition has been added to the church, which includes three Sunday School rooms, freeing up the parish hall for adult classes and other social functions. The church averages over 20 adults in church on Sunday with another three to six adults and 10 to 14 children in Sunday School. Father Harry E. Shaefer is the current pastor and Judy Haley serves as senior warden.
Through the years a dedicated core of believers have remained to keep the flames of the Episcopal church alive in Elizabethton.
Vicar Doty in his written history of St. Thomas noted that it is difficult to be an Episcopalian in Upper East Tennessee due to the culture, the economics and old misconceptions and perceptions of the Episcopal church that conspire to make the Anglican ministry unique and often painfully challenging.
However, it appears that St.Thomas Episcopal Church is more stable and its outlook brighter than any time in its history. It has a unique place in Elizabethton’s history.