Green Hill PresbyterianJun 22, 2017 01:18PM ● By J. Chambless
Rev. Thomas G. Speers is currently serving as the interim pastor, while helping the church transition to new leadership.
Hill Presbyterian Church sits tucked back off Kennett Pike, its spire
rising above the surrounding rooftops. The understated white church
appears timeless. Following the walkway through the cemetery towards
the church entrance, you feel the substantial weight of history
Green Hill is one of four area churches that grew out of the Brandywine Manufacturers Sunday School. The school was modeled on Robert Raikes’ Sunday School in England. During the Industrial Revolution, Raikes was determined to educate poor children through free classes on Sundays. A mill worker who immigrated from England to work in the Simsville Cotton Mill on the Brandywine had benefited from Raikes’ free education. So he set up similar classes for his fellow workers. The school taught Bible lessons, reading and writing. This basic education was often the only learning available to the workers and their families.
In 1815, E.I. duPont de Nemours visited the Sunday school in the cotton mill. He was impressed, and he encouraged his eldest daughter, Victorine, to take an active role in the school. Victorine’s new husband, Ferdinand Bauduy, had succumbed to an illness shortly after their marriage, and the Sunday school seemed to help fill the void and ease her grief.
Her two sisters, Sophie and Eleuthera, joined her as teachers, even though they were still children. The girls would learn their lessons with their tutor, then teach the exercises in the Sunday classroom. All religious denominations were welcomed at the school, and lessons were taught with no distinctions between the different faiths.
The school grew as more families traveled from neighboring factories and mills to attend class. Eventually, the Brandywine Manufacturers Sunday School found a permanent home in a schoolhouse constructed at the entrance to Hagley. As time passed, the religious denominations found the means to start their own churches. The Methodists built Mount Salem Church, St. Joseph's on the Brandywine was formed by Catholics, and the Presbyterians established their church on a portion of Green Hill Farm. The Episcopalians remained at the Brandywine Manufacturers School, and later built Christ Church.
In 1847, the Presbyterians purchased the church property, but they lacked money for the construction of their house of worship. A plan was conceived to sell grave plots to raise capital, and the church cornerstone was laid the following year. Green Hill Presbyterian Church installed its deacons and elders in 1849, and counted a congregation of 28 members.
Green Hill Presbyterian remains the same simple family church envisioned by its founding members. The cemetery that funded the construction of the building has grown to wrap around the church -- a reminder of its heritage. Reverend Thomas G. Speers, who is serving as the interim pastor, said, “It’s a blessing we have the cemetery here. I actually love wandering through it to get to the church, because I think it represents a much greater reality. All those folks are cheering as we gather here.”
Walking among the gravestones, you find large family plots dating from the 1800s to the present time. Families who were early members of the congregation have remained connected to the church throughout the generations.
Charles Reed is the church historian, and has a great deal of appreciation for the stories the gravestones tell. He explained that the earliest date on a stone is 1835. Since the monument predates the church, he’s certain the grave was moved to the cemetery at a later time.
“I believe it was not uncommon for rural people to have a cemetery on their property,” he said. “When they moved, they would move their deceased loved ones with them. It’s pretty clear that may have happened here.”
One of the more intriguing gravestones is a simple marker with the inscription, “Unknown drummer boy 1861-1865.”
“It’s possible a young boy arrived in this area during the Civil War, died, and was buried in the cemetery,” Reed said.
Today, churches are often built on a grand scale, but at its founding, accessibility was more important to Green Hill and other area churches, rather than grandeur.
“This was a very walk-to, ride-your-horse-to neighborhood church,” Reed said. The congregation was made up of mainly Scots-Irish people who were more likely to be the workers: the house maids, the servants, the stablemen, rather than the mill owners.
Jane Reed added, “These people were often the house-people for the wealthy. Some were 'up-the-crickers' who worked in the powder mills.”
Pastor Speers noted that there are five Presbyterian churches along Kennett Pike, ranging from downtown Wilmington to Mendenhall, Pa. “Today, you can go to any one of them easily, but back when folks were on foot or horseback, they needed a neighborhood church,” he said.
Green Hill’s congregation currently numbers around 85 members, but there is a great vitality to this small church.
Jane and Charles Reed have a long history of service to Green Hill. It was their neighborhood church when they lived in Westover Hills, and they honored the tradition of walking to worship. Charles is treasurer of the church and also serves on the Presbytery Council. Jane is a Commissioner, as well as Clerk of Session.
“We have a great deal of prayer in this church,” Jane said, “and we like to think it works. We have a very good core of Bible-based people.”
The congregation is diverse in age, ranging from a newborn to a member who recently celebrated his 104th birthday. “There are members of families that go way back, and have been involved with this church for many years,” said Rev. Speers.
It’s also a happy church, according to Jane. “We call it the family of Green Hill Church. When someone joins, we welcome them into the family,” she said. “When we have a baptism, we are the ones who want to help bring the child up religiously.”
Green Hill’s congregation has a passionate interest in music. For several years, they have been inviting outside musicians to accompany and enhance worship services several times a year. This year musical guests have included the Welsh Choir, Capitol Brass, The Sunday Breakfast Mission Men’s Choir, and Vision A Capella. Additionally, the Chancel Choir joins voices with the choirs of St. Joseph R.C., Lower Brandywine Presbyterian and Christ Church for a service on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. During Advent, the choir again joins with Lower Brandywine to perform a Christmas Cantata at each church.
Bruce Fine is the music director of Green Hill, and he accompanies worship service on the church’s historic Hook and Hastings pipe organ. He is also directing the new handbell choir. “Our bell choir includes a 9-year-old boy and a 96-year-old member,” Rev. Speers said.
The members of Green Hill Presbyterian are engaged in various outreach programs in the Wilmington area.
“Like every church around, we are also active in the wider community,” Rev. Speers said. Some of the important programs the church supports are Urban Promise, Meals on Wheels, Sunday Breakfast Mission, and A Door of Hope. “We have been cooking for Emmanuel Dining Room every Thursday since they opened their doors,” Jane Reed said.
Charles Reed added, “We are not the kind of a church where you sign up and disappear into the woodwork. People come here because they want to be involved. We are a very active group.”
In addition to Sunday worship service, the church hosts seven to eight community meetings each week, holds Bible study groups, and offers children’s Sunday school.
Rev. Speers arrived at the church in 2016 and will serve as the interim pastor until a permanent pastor is called to lead the congregation. He relocated from Connecticut, where he served at First Presbyterian Church in Hartford.
“I’m actually the trailing spouse,” he explained. His wife, Bessie, accepted Tower Hill’s head of school position, which necessitated their move to Delaware. The couple reside on the Tower Hill campus. “I won’t find a more convenient church; I live across the street,” he said, adding with a smile, “It’s a tough commute.”
He said that his focus is on working with the church in terms of honoring their history, and reconnecting with the denomination. His work this summer will include a mission study to determine what the church is looking for in their new pastor. “A fair amount of energy will go into that process in the next couple of months,” he said. “We are also in the midst of a reviewing what programs we are supporting, and why. Part of our energy is in the direction of, 'Let’s be discerning of what we do and how we do it.'
“I’m delighted to be a part of this. I am enjoying it a great deal,” Rev. Speers said. When the time arrives, he will move on to another church. For now, he is doing the work he was called to do at Green Hill.
“In the midst of a time when, nationally, we are so divided, I think how churches and synagogues have a long history of people who have learned to get along despite their differences,” he said. “They’ve learned to not demonize. They’ve learned to find a deeper common core. It strikes me that we are needed more than ever right now, to deal with that reality. By the way we are treating each other, it seems a lot of folks have forgotten that. I’d like to be a part of finding that common core.”
Green Hill Presbyterian Church is at 3112 Kennett Pike, Wilmington, Del. Worship service is held every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Visit www.greenhillpres.org for more information and upcoming events.
contact staff writer Lisa Fieldman, email [email protected]