The History of St. John's Episcopal, Roanoke

The railroad arrived in the early 1890s, and Big Lick, Virginia, became Roanoke. Almost overnight, the city’s population soared, and tiny St. John’s Church, which had existed in Roanoke since 1850, grew along with it. In 1892, with profound faith that God would bless their endeavor, St. John’s two hundred members built a six hundred seat new church at the corner of Jefferson Street and Elm Avenue.

The construction of the church was not without its challenges. Conflict within the congregation about whether to build the new church at all threatened to halt the project and resulted in a split that seeded our sister parish, Christ Church (a relationship we now cherish). Additionally, the Roanoke economy in the early 1890s was in a downturn, and a shortage of construction funds was a chronic problem.

Some of the challenges, and the responses to them, are comical in hindsight. As one example, since the property on which the church was being constructed previously had been unoccupied, a neighbor had created a cesspool on it into which his sewer line drained. Initially, it wasn’t obvious which neighbor was the source of the refuse. Building Supervisor William C. Noland found himself going house to house along the block asking suspicious Roanokers if he could examine their sewer lines. The culprit was finally identified and the problem fixed. As another example, in order to raise funds for construction, the Ladies Guild hosted a benefit extravaganza at the Roanoke Opera House, including an original two-act comedy entitled “A Box of Monkeys!”

The faithful people of St. John’s overcame all obstacles in order to build this church as a testament to the central place of God in their lives and their community. That testimony has continued throughout the years. Today, St. John’s is a vibrant and growing part of the Roanoke community and is the largest parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Membership is 1,600, and the average Sunday attendance is 500. In 2009, the parish completed an extensive restoration of the historic church, ensuring that this holy place continues as a beacon of the gospel for future generations. (For more on the 2009 parish restoration project, click here and/or download the booklet about that restoration here.)

As the flagship parish of the Diocese, St. John’s sings praises to the Lord through renowned music, mission and outreach that extend from Roanoke to Ghana, Africa, and educational programs that engage people of every age. St. John’s moves into the future as a community in which the Gospel is preached, the Sacraments are administered, and the love of God in Christ is shared with all who enter.

Rectors of St. John’s

The Brick Church 1831-1850
The Reverend Dabney Miller Wharton 1835-1843
The Reverend George Thornton Wilmer, D.D. 1844-1854

The Old Lick Church 1850-1877
Mr. Wilmer
The Reverend William Henry Pendleton 1855-1860
The Reverend Peter Tinsley, D.D. 1860-1867
The Reverend Edward H. Ingle 1867-1877

The Big Lick Church 1877-1892
The Reverend Edward Anderson Penick 1879-1880
The Reverend Robert A. Goodwin, D.D. 1881-1883
The Reverend Davis M. Wood 1883-1886
The Reverend William Hopkins Meade, D.D. 1887-1898

The Roanoke Church 1892-
Mr. Meade
The Reverend William Hammond Milton, D.D. 1899-1910
The Reverend James Willis Cantey Johnson 1910-1920
The Reverend Karl Morgan Block, D.D. 1920-1926
The Reverend Alfred Rives Berkeley, D.D. 1926-1945
The Reverend Richard Reynolds Beasley, D.D. 1946-1968
The Reverend Charles Gumph Newberry 1969-1974
The Reverend Clay H. Turner 1975-1990
The Reverend Thomas P. O’Dell 1992-2000
The Reverend Robert L. Beasley 2002-2005
The Reverend Barkley S. Thompson 2007-2013
The Reverend Eric C. Long 2014-