A History of St. James’s Episcopal Church

St. James’s Episcopal Church’s sanctuary stands at an intersection significant to the history of Cambridge, Massachusetts and on the site of the former Davenport Tavern. St. James’s was founded in 1864 by the Reverend Andrew Croswell, a retired Episcopal priest who became the church’s first rector. The building was constructed by Cambridge builders and master Mason craftsmen. It is architecturally significant as an excellent example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style in Cambridge and the only Massachusetts work of the prominent church architect, Henry Martyn Congdon (1834-1922). Over the years, the sanctuary has come to house many beautiful stained glass windows and a historic bell re-cast by Paul Revere.

The first service was held on Christmas Eve 1864 at Atwill’s Hall, a building at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Russell Street. A wooden sanctuary was built in 1871, two blocks away on Beech Street, now the location of our parking lot. The cornerstone of our current stone church was laid in 1888. Construction was made possible with the handsome support of Mary Longfellow Greenleaf (sister of the famous Poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), whose memory is honored as a grand patron of St. James's. With admiration from local press for the size and beauty of the edifice, the present church was dedicated on November 5, 1889.

Rectors of the church include:
The Reverend Andrew Croswell, 1864-1871
The Reverend William Fultz, 1871-1873
The Reverend T.S. Tyng, 1873-1878
The Reverend Edward Abbott, 1878-1906
The Reverend Robb White, 1906-1908
The Reverend William Gardner, 1908-1910
The Reverend Ernest Paddock, 1910-1945
The Reverend G. Earl Daniels, 1945-1954
The Reverend Thomas Fletcher, 1954-1961
The Reverend Russell Way, 1961-1982
The Reverend Samuel Abbott, 1983-1992
The Reverend Christopher Leighton, 1994-1998
The Reverend J. Michael Povey, 2000-2006
The Reverend Holly Lyman Antolini, 2008-2018

Since the turn of the 20th century, St. James’s history has paralleled the history of the surrounding area. With the influx of immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and Canada to the Porter Square area, the parish began to include members from a wide range of cultures. These immigrant groups formed the main body of St. James’s parish, establishing a busy and thriving church life until the 1950s and 1960s. Around that time, the neighborhood’s population changed and church attendance began to decline as the families who had attended for generations moved to the suburbs. A number of other factors influenced this decline.

The 1960s and 1970s were generally a turbulent time for cities and for the Episcopal Church. St. James’s was not immune to these circumstances; by the early 1980s church attendance was extremely low with a mere 60 regular attendees. The Reverend Russell Way held services in the Parish Hall to save the expense of heating the sanctuary. In 1983, former Boston University law professor turned priest, the Reverend Samuel Abbott was called to St. James’s. He led the church into a period of growth. Many people were drawn by Rev. Abbott’s combination of intellectual and evangelical preaching. Reinforced by the musical direction of Minister of Music Patrick Michaels, the parish became known for its spirited and diverse worship.

Rev. Abbott accepted the call to another parish in 1992. Growth and vitality continued with the help of the Reverend Sathi Clarke and the Reverend Steven Bonsey during a two-year interim period. Lay leadership strengthened with the development of new programs by parishioners.

In 1994 the Reverend Christopher Leighton was called as rector. Although evangelism and an emphasis on Biblical guidance had been important at St. James’s, Rev. Leighton brought an increased emphasis on renewal and a charismatic worship style. The church was by now a diverse collection of mainline Episcopalians, social activists, prayerful contemplatives, and evangelicals. He accepted the call to another parish in 1998.

In 2000, we called the Reverend J. Michael Povey. Christian Education was very important to the Rev. Povey, and he connected especially well with our youth. He welcomed all, including young adults, single parishioners, and non-traditional families. He retired from the priesthood in the summer of 2006.

In 2008, we called the Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini. No sooner had she arrived than we were into our transformative redevelopment project, with all hands on deck. Meanwhile, we continued unabated in our mission of service to our community both in Cambridge and abroad. Rev. Antolini retired from the priesthood at the end of 2018.

In 2018, we gladly consented to the appointment of the Rev. Matt Stewart as Priest-in-Charge, and we look forward to our ministry together.


About St. James's Stained Glass Windows