[Episcopal News Service] More than a few tears were shed and smiles shared by the members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Heathsville, Virginia, this Palm Sunday, following the resolution of a five-year legal dispute with another congregation over ownership of the property.
One of those members, Meade Kilduff, was baptized in the 131-year-old building in 1918. At the time, Kilduff’s mother traveled over two days by train and by boat in the dead of winter from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to her hometown of Heathsville for Meade’s baptism. Years later, Kilduff would return to raise a family – and to worship in St. Stephen’s.
That’s why this past weekend was a homecoming for Kilduff and other members of the congregation, as they returned to their historic church after worshiping in temporary spaces for the past five years. “I am so overwhelmed,” said Kilduff. “I didn’t realize how much I loved it until I came back. It is so beautiful.”
The return follows the Fairfax County Circuit Court’s ruling that seven congregations in which the majority of members and clergy left the Episcopal Church in 2006 and 2007 to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America must return all property to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia by April 30, 2012. St. Stephen’s is the first of four “continuing congregations” of Episcopalians to transition back to their parish home.
“When people go through painful experiences, especially painful experiences that have to do with the church, especially painful experiences that have to do with church conflict, it is easy for us to understand why people give up on faith, or at least give up on the church,” said the Rev. Lucia Lloyd, rector, in her Palm Sunday sermon. “But the folks who, for one reason or another, stick with faith or come back to it, and the folks who, for one reason or another, stick with church or come back to it, usually do find that we, walking in the way of the cross, find it none other than the way of life and peace. The whole journey has been wonderful.”
Parishioner Dawn Mahaffey agrees. “Looking back on this, it has been a blessing,” said Mahaffey. “We’ve come together. We’ve come to really understand what a church family is.”
That sense of family characterizes the members of St. Stephen’s. “The lay leadership that has emerged from dealing with adversity has been amazing,” said Lloyd. “These laypeople take initiative, come up with creative solutions to problems, and aren’t afraid of hard work to put them into effect.”
One of those “creative solutions” was finding a temporary worship space — first in a neighboring Methodist church, and later in what has come to be known as Chilton Chapel, a privately owned home that the St. Stephen’s parishioners transformed into a worship space. They tore up 50-year-old, wall-to-wall carpeting and then refinished the floors. They scraped seven layers of wallpaper off the walls. They painted, cleaned, designed and furnished. “We got dirty and grubby doing it,” said St. Stephen’s parishioner Sandra Kirkpatrick. “Almost every single one of us had an interest in that space.”
Sunday marked the start of a new chapter in the life of St. Stephen’s. Next weekend, parishioners will celebrate Easter Sunday in their historic church, and on April 14 they will invite members of the community and the diocese to join them in a special homecoming.
And they’ll continue their ministries and work as a community of faith. “We talk about our ‘spiritual journey’ and, for this congregation, that journey has been a physical reality,” said Lloyd. “This journey for us has been like walking a labyrinth. You wind around, not knowing where the twists and turns are going to take you next, or how long it will take, but you keep walking because you trust. And then you get back to the place you began, but along the way, as you walked and prayed through the uncertainty, you have been changed when you arrive back home.”
— Emily Cherry is the communications officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.