History of St. Matthew’s Church by Iris Finlayson
In the early 1700s as the inhabitants of New Providence grew, they found it difficult to worship in one small place, which at that time was Christ Church, a small wooden building. To accommodate the inhabitants of the east, the Rector of Christ Church, Rev. Robert Carter, the only clergyman on the island, began holding services in a house furnished with benches.
In 1796 Rev. Carter documented that the town was so large that the people were considering building a chapel in the Eastern District.
In 1799 the Legislative Council passed an Act to build a Church in the “East”. The government gave three thousand pounds but, at completion, the total cost was more than seven thousand pounds (excluding the steeple). The contractor was Mr. Joseph Eve, whose second profession was that of a printer. The seating capacity of the Church was four hundred and fifty.
The steeple was erected in 1816 and remains as built to this day. The bottom was originally used as a depository for books.
The foundation of St. Matthew’s Church was laid in 1800, with the building erected without steel reinforcements. This explains the enormous pillars and the unusually thick walls.
The windows were designed in the early Roman style and were strategically placed to take advantage of the breeze from the northern side. The windows and the interior were painted a light sage green and they remain this color today. Two columns supported the semi-circular arches of the roof.
Through the years there have been many renovations to improve the interior of the building; the exterior, however, remains unchanged.
On March 26, 1857, St. Matthew’s was struck by lightning, which damaged the roof of the steeple; the walls were cracked and a number of the glass windows were shattered.
In1887 the Chancel was consecrated. The stained glass window in the east is in memory of Bishop Venables and his children. The subjects are Christ blessing little children and below the charge given to St. Peter to tend God’s sheep.
During the early years of the church, the congregation consisted of in habitants living in the east and those migrating from the Family Islands.
The first Rector was Rev. Henry Groombridge who arrived in 1802 and died in 1804. He conducted the opening service on July 18, 1802. The Sermon was preached by Rev. Robert Carter. St. Matthew’s was not consecrated until 21 years following it’s opening Divine Worship (May 20, 1823). Rev.William Strachan was the first live-in Rector (1826 mcew). It was said that this position was given to him as “a gift” in hopes that he would use his intellectual capabilities in New Providence teaching the Classics (Latin & Greek).
FIRST BAHAMIAN PRIEST Rev. Richardson Saunders became Rector in 1856. He was ordained in Nassau by Bishop Courtney and this was the ordination ever held in Nassau. He was known worldwide as “Parson”. He was loved and respected by people of all religions. A mahogany Lectern, Chancel Chair and Priest Stall were in memory of “Parson” who died in 1903. (They remain on the altar today).
BAPTISTERY In 1899 the basement of the steeple was used for the accumulation of lumber and other building material. In 1900 it was transformed into a Baptistery.
During Rev. R. K. Bennett’s tenure as Rector (1912) he documented the following regarding changes that met resistance in the church:
“The people themselves will smile at their former objections to innovations. The introduction of the altar curtains was looked at with disapproval. The fight of the Priest to wear vestments was yielded somewhat ungraciously by two or three of his own affair. Altar lights were an unpardonable offense and caused a scuffle; wafer bread was thought of like an insult to the Blessed Sacrament and when served from the southern end of the rail caused questionings, even plainsong caused a choir strike.”
RENOVATIONS AND REPAIRS In 1918 the roof and ceiling had become very dangerous and the Vestry felt that repairs could not be delayed any longer. Along with extensive renovations, a new organ was bought.
On Sunday, November 19, 1918, the Lord Bishop re-opened the church for public worship and dedicated various additions and altercations and consecrated Our Lady’s Chapel.
The Chancel was enlarged by a stone platform built out into the church towards the east (High Altar) and bounded by a low stone wall at the corner on which has been built an admirable stone pulpit – the first of it’s kind.
In addition to the Chancel, the Choir Stalls were removed from the southern portion of the church and a side chapel (Our Lady’s Chapel) was erected.
The altar was also beautifully decorated with gold leaves around the top. A magnificent cross and a pair of candlesticks were on the altar, the pews were stained. The Vestry was also newly fitted for the proper keeping of various articles of worship including the Church books.
Eighty years later, renovations continue. At the western end of the Church, restrooms are being constructed and this should be completed in June 1998.
FIRST BAHAMIAN ARCHDEACON Father Donald Knowles became Rector of St. Matthews in 1951. He was loved by everyone he met. He was responsible for building St. Margaret’s and St. George’s Church. He was well known for his frequent home visits.
NUNS In June 1968 the sisters from the society of St. Peter, Caleham Abbey rendered invaluable service to the young people of the church. The sisters were teachers, counsellors, and friends to all. The church has had a glorious past and is looking forward to a bright future.