In a city settled by refugees from the Church of England, it’s not surprising Norwich’s first Episcopalians were a tiny minority among their Puritan neighbours. At a meeting on January 7, 1747, it was decided to “build a church for the worship of Almighty God, according to the Litergie of the Church of England.” A year later, Captain Benijah Bushnell accepted five shillings for the land he offered the new parish on what is now known as lower Washington Street—site of the present church building.
The name “Christ’s Church in Chelsea (Norwich)” first appeared in 1758. But it wasn’t until 1768 that the Rev. John Tyler became the parish’s first rector. The church was closed and services held in the rectory during the Revolution. As sworn supporters of the English king, Defender of the Faith, Episcopalians were unpopular to say the least. Bishop Samuel Seabury in 1791 dedicated the parish’s second building, this one on Main Street. The land on Washington Street became the parish burying ground. The old building was sold in 1829 to the Episcopal Society of Salem (Connecticut) for $800. It was knocked down, removed to Salem, and reassembled on the town green. The town purchased the building when the Society disbanded a few years later, removed its spire and pews. It served as the town hall until just a few years ago. The building is now the headquarters of the Salem Historical Society.
A year after Rev. William F. Morgan arrived to become rector in 1844, he proposed yet another new church. Richard Upjohn, the leading English Gothic architect, was engaged to draw the plans. The parish decided to go back to the Washington Street lot. The graves were removed and the remains interred in a common grave. The remains of the Rev. John Tyler and his wife, Hannah, were placed in a crypt under the chancel. The headstones and footstones were, and still are, stored in the cellar. The cornerstone of the present building was laid on August 31, 1846.
A group within the parish refused to move to the new building on Washington Street. After a great deal of negotiation, they chose to purchase the old building on Church Street, renaming it Trinity Parish. The present English Gothic, brown Portland sandstone building with black walnut interior was consecrated on April 18, 1849. Two additions were made over the years, a century apart. A two-story wing was added at the back in the 1850s, and another two-story wing was added on the north side in the 1950s.
Disaster struck in 1963, when the VanTassel chemical warehouse across the river exploded and left the church a shambles. The walls and the roof were badly damaged; nearly every piece of glass was blown in. All but the two large stained glass memorial windows in the rear of the nave were destroyed, as were the large lancets of the altar window and the five small lancets in the chancel. The most difficult decision in making the needed repairs was what to do about replacing the windows. Seldom does an old church have the chance to install windows with continuity in their theme. As the two large memorials at the rear of the nave had survived the blast and both depicted events in the life of Christ, the Annunciation and the Resurrection, it was decided to continue this theme in the new windows, which picture the Nativity, the Baptism, the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, the Ascension, Pentecost, and the Great Commission. Although modern in feeling, the windows are in the Byzantine-Romanesque style. The three large lancet windows in back of the Altar and the five side lancet windows in the chancel depict the Descent of the Heavenly Jerusalem, taken from the Book of the Revelation.
Christ Church witnessed more change in the 1960s than in any single decade in its history. Changes proposed for the Book of Common Prayer were introduced. Lay participation in the service increased. The altar and communion rail were moved closer to the congregation in keeping with the theological emphasis on participation in the Eucharist as a celebration of community and unity in the body and blood of Christ. Women assumed liturgical and administrative positions. The physical plant was redesigned to meet modern needs. The parish reached out to other denominations.
The trend continued into the 1970s and was magnified by people who left the Episcopal Church over the new prayer book and the ordination of women. The 1980s brought still more change. The 1982 hymnal introduced a number of new hymns and service music.
The parish in the early eighties honored organist Earle M. Potter for serving 50 years in music. Ten years later the parish did the same to honor his 60 years of service. Our rector, the Rev. Donald R. Lillpopp provided a teaching program to educate parishioners about the changes brought by the 1979 prayer book—in particular making the Eucharist the principal service of Sunday worship. The eighties were a time of rampant inflation. Our parish was hard-pressed to keep up with rapidly increasing budgets. During this time the parish received a large bequest from Charles Gilbert, which helped a great deal. With fewer communicants it had become increasingly difficult to have a balanced parish budget.
The parish marked its 250th anniversary in 1997, organizing a parish history and celebrating in special events and services throughout the year.
In the 1960s the Church of the Resurrection was established at the intersection of Harland Road and Hunters’ Road. In 1999 the parishes of Christ Church and the Church of the Resurrection merged to form a new church – Christ Episcopal Church. Decisions were made to worship in the former Christ Church building and sell the church of the Resurrection. The Resurrection Rectory, however, was retained and the Christ Church Rectory sold.