On June 14, 1858, the Reverend Owen P. Thackara met with a small group of Fernandina citizens to form a missionary outpost. In November of that same year, the first Bishop of Florida laid the cornerstone of the first St. Peter’s Church in Fernandina on the southeast corner of what is today St. Peter’s Cemetery.
In 1881, ground was broken and the cornerstone was laid for the present-day church. The first service in the beautiful, new Neo-Gothic building was held on March 30, 1884. Early on the morning of February 24, 1892, much of the new church was destroyed by fire. The building was restored, and 15 months later St. Peter’s was formally consecrated on Easter Day, 1901. During the 1980s and 1990s, significant building and restoration activities were undertaken including construction of the present day Christian Education and church office buildings.
It is impossible to accurately represent St Peter’s without including the original St. Peter’s Church completed in 1859 on the southeast corner of our present cemetery. The cornerstone of the church was laid in 1858 by the Right Reverend Francis H. Rutledge, the first Bishop of Florida (1851-1866). In 1887, six years after the construction of the church now standing at the corner of Atlantic and 8th St, the original St Peter’s Church was given to a black congregation and renamed Good Shepherd Church. Since it was located on hallowed ground in the cemetery, the church building was later moved across the street.
The Good Shepherd Church structure was showing its age by the early 1960s. Built up off the ground, the building was unstable, and the City of Fernandina Beach condemned it as unsafe. The St Peter’s and Good Shepherd congregations decided to build a replacement building for the Good Shepherd. However, after lengthy discussions, the Bishop of Florida Hamilton West decided not to consecrate the new Good Shepherd Church building. Instead, the white and black congregations were united in the large church on Atlantic Ave. The building originally designated as The Good Shepherd is now the St. Peter’s Youth Building.
Across Alachua Street, on the north side of the church campus, is the church cemetery, which also has an interesting history. The Union Army occupied the church property in the early 1860s and began burying people here. The first is believed to be young Frederick Albert Grossman, the two-month-old son of Frederick Grossman, a captain in the 7th U.S. Infantry. Near the Iron Gate (right of the center area) is the oldest headstone, which reads “Jeffrey’s Boy” 1866. While attending school in Gainesville, he was attacked by a bear from a traveling circus. The church’s first rector, the Reverend Owen Thackara’s rests in the center of the property. South from there is the famed New York architect, Robert Schuyler’s headstone. Schuyler designed the present St. Peter’s Church as well as Fairbanks House and Hirth House, other island landmarks.
St Peter’s today is a large integrated congregation called the “Crown of Centre Street.” Its facilities are utilized for four different weekly services, a monthly Celtic Service, plus numerous parish and community events.
Edited by the Reverend Dr. Marcia C. King, March, 2021