By John Burton
SHREWSBURY – Christ Church is a local treasure.
It’s too important historically not to get needed renovation work done, according to Rebecca Pruitt, who is overseeing the repair and refurbishing work being done to the white shingled Episcopal church that is older than the country.
“Just look around you,” Pruitt said as she stood in the building. “There is so much history here, so much that is so important for the whole community.”
The church at 380 Sycamore Ave. sits at what is often referred to as the Four Corners, a site historian and Monmouth County Historical Commission Executive Director Randall Gabrielan called “arguably the most historic acre in Monmouth County,” populated with the Allen House, the Shrewsbury Friends (Quakers) Meeting House, Presbyterian Church and Christ Church.
The church, which is listed on both the state and National Register of Historic Places is being renovated, in part to repair some of the damage wrought by Super Storm Sandy last October.
The work includes repairing window frames and the back porch and mildew removal. The church also is getting an exterior paint job, the first since 1998.
The work is expected to cost between $24,000 and $30,000, a significant sum for the congregation that numbers about 100 families, said Robert Kelly, senior warden and church historian.
Church leaders have been trying to muster whatever assistance they can to support the work. They have gotten some help from the Benjamin Moore paint company, which is working with Monmouth Building Center in Shrewsbury. The company is contributing $1 from every gallon of Benjamin Moore paint sold at the home center location to the church for the project. Monmouth Building Center and contractors working on the project have also offered assistance. The Monmouth County Historical Commission, too, has awarded the church $9,000 in grants.
Church members acknowledge they are always in need of additional help when it comes to the location’s upkeep.
“The embodiment of all this work is about community,” said Pruitt, a church vestry member who is in charge of overseeing the property.
Gabrielan noted the church and its grounds are “extremely important, both historically – as one of the earliest houses of worship in the county – and architecturally,” as one of the remaining works of Robert Smith, a noted architect of the Colonial era. “We’re talking about a very, very important place,” Gabrielan said.
The Episcopal parish dates back to 1702; Christ Church still has its original charter, according to Kelly. The congregation acquired most of its 1.5-acre corner property in 1706, when Nicholas Brown sold it for 5 shillings to the Anglican Church’s Society of the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which, in turn, deeded the land to the local congregation.
The parish’s first church, made of brick, was completed in 1733 but eventually couldn’t support the growing congregation, Kelly said.
The present church building was completed in 1774, The congregation still has the builder’s agreement, dated 1769, according to Kelly.
The church regularly holds tours of the site and visitors “are actually amazed at so much history in their presence,” Kelly said.
Pruitt said Gen. George Washington attended a service there as he traveled through the area during the Revolutionary War. The church features a bell cast in France in 1788. The stained-glass windows came from St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in New York City, when St. Thomas’ relocated from Houston Street to 53rd Street in 1867. The windows, Kelly said, are “some of the oldest in the country.”
The church is noted for its “Vinegar Bible,” published in 1716 in Oxford, England, which it received in 1752. The Bible got its unusual name because of a typo for the Parable of the Vineyard. It is one of only six that exists, Pruitt and Kelly said. The chalice and plate, gifts from the Mother Church in 1703, are still used today which helps contribute to the location’s importance.
The cemetery on the grounds have headstones dating back for centuries and two boxwood trees that are more than 300 years old, Pruitt said. “We have arborists who come by all the time and look at them.”
“All these things,” Kelly said, “pull together to make this a remarkable historical resource.”
But a church is more than the sum of its past, offering a constant stability for the community, with Pruitt noting the church’s work today includes providing a place for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and a program for youthful criminal offenders to do their community service.
She noted that the day after Sandy last October, the caretaker came and wound up the clock in the steeple, allowing the bell to ring as it always does.
“Hearing that bell makes you think everything is going to be all right,” she said.