As heirs to the Church of England, Episcopal congregations are often among the oldest — if not the oldest — in many New England towns. In Provincetown, however, the Episcopal church was among the latest arrivals. Even the Church of Christ, Scientist had a permanent sanctuary here (418 Commercial Street) before the Episcopalians did. But under the Rev. Robert Wood Nicholson, who was called in 1933 to be the first vicar of St. Mary’s and is portrayed here by Jerry Farnsworth, the young church flourished, becoming a small artistic treasure house in the process. (Its nominal street number is 517, but the lot embraces what used to be four discreet properties, from No. 513 to No. 519.)
Regular Anglican services of any kind were not celebrated in Provincetown until 1904, when the Rev. Albert E. George of Walpole began conducting them at Masonic Hall, 2 Masonic Place. Several different priests visited the fledgling “summer congregation” until 1907, when the Rev. James J. Cogan arrived from Fall River to take charge of the summertime services, which he conducted through 1921. During his tenure, worship was conducted for two years — 1910 and 1911 — at the Star Theater, 286-288 Commercial, then for a year in the Universalist meeting house at 236 Commercial, then back to Masonic Hall. After all the moving around, a semipermanent home was found in 1914, when a building at 217 Commercial was let for six years, through 1919.
While at 217 Commercial, in 1917, St. Mary’s was elevated from “summer congregation” to “mission church” — still a step shy of being a parish church, but nonetheless an achievement in less than a decade. In 1919, the congregation and the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts purchased a three-story former salt house at 513 Commercial Street and converted it to use as a temporary church in time for the summer of 1920. Two years later, Billow-Crest, the home on the adjacent parcel to the east, 517 Commercial, was purchased with a view to having it serve the church complex. Today, it is known as Nicholson Hall. (That’s where the portrait of Nicholson hangs.) Billow-Crest still had a commercial tenant, Polly’s restaurant, as late as 1927. That year, the submarine U.S.S. S-4 sank off Wood End; an event closely associated today with St. Mary’s because of the memorial cross that stands in the churchyard.
Winter services began in 1919, held first at members’ homes, then in rooms over the First National Bank, 290 Commercial, from 1924 to 1926; moving subsequently to Marine Hall at 96 Bradford Street. The arrival of Nicholson in 1933 as the first full-time vicar of the mission church marked a period of remarkable growth in the community of St. Mary’s and in its physical plant. Construction began on a permanent house of worship, designed by the painter Frederick J. Waugh (1861-1940), who also contributed what is arguably the finest work of art in the church’s rich patrimony: a painting titled Madonna of the Harbor. The chancel, on the south end of the church, closest to the beach, is the reconstructed Sandbar Club from the West End, the timbers of which were salvaged by the builder, Horace Snow of Truro, and numbered for reassembly. Fine liturgical art, often a distinguishing feature of Episcopal churches, was bound to be part of St. Mary, especially under the direction of Waugh and Nicholson.
Richard E. Miller (1875-1943), one of the leaders of the conservative art faction at the Provincetown Art Association, contributed the reredos painting, behind the altar, titled The Triumphal Entry. The painting above that, tucked into the chancel’s gabled ceiling, is The Coming of the Holy Spirit, by Constance Bigelow, who had at one time been secretary of the Art Students League of New York. (There it is again!) Atop the oak beam that serves as a rood screen between chancel and church are three sculptures by Arnold Geissbuhler (1897-1997): Christ on the Waters, flanked by Adoring Angels. At the rear of the church, tucked into the gabled ceiling, is The Epiphany Mural by Robert Douglas Hunter (b 1928), a Noble Proletarian depiction of fishermen and artists. Waugh’s lovely Madonna is directly below. In the adjoining vestibule is a sweet Christmas painting, Joyeux Noël, by Peter Hunt (1898-1969). The sculptor William Boogar (1893-1958) also has a number of pieces in the church and in the garden.
The new church was dedicated on 26 August 1936. It was an exhilarating time. As related in the parish history, St. Mary of the Harbor, “The Outermost Church”: A History of Our First Century: “Summer parishioners returning the year after the dedication found what looked like a miracle at St. Mary’s. The waste place had become a garden. Water lilies grew in a pool fed by a little fountain; benches stood in the shade of a grape arbor and leafy trees. There were grass and flowers. The design for all this was in part Mr. Waugh’s and in part Father Nicholson’s, who did much of the digging and planting.” (He once told a parishioner, ‘Everyone wants to give artworks to the church but no one has offered what we need most — a load of manure — in memory of his grandmother!’)”
Nicholson was succeeded as vicar in 1938 by James De Wolfe Perry, who was the first to dwell in the newly acquired vicarage at 519 Commercial Street, formerly a Whorf family property. Perry was followed in 1942 by the Rev. William R. Bailey. In 1946, when St. Mary’s was admitted into union with the Diocese of Massachusetts as a full-fledged parish, Bailey thereupon became its first rector. After Bailey’s departure came a succession of six ministers in a period that even the parochial history frankly acknowledged as one in which St. Mary’s was “torn by disputes on increasing bitterness.” The small bell tower that can be seen in earlier views of the church was removed during the brief and especially stormy rectorate of the Rev. Harold Bronk, from 1956 to 1957. After his departure came earnest talk of closing down St. Mary’s altogether. It was only through the helpful intercession of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Orleans that a ministry was continued at land’s end until another priest could be called.
Claude Jensen created three new stained-glass windows in 1963 with the novel touch of clear plastic interstices instead of lead. In 1967, the 30-year-old memorial cross for the S-4 was replaced with a new nine-foot version, carved from California redwood by Frederick L. Maichle Jr. During the vicariate of the Rev. John R. McLaughlin from 1979 to 1987, some sense of true healing began to settle over the congregation, according to the short history published by the church. That did not mean an end to difficulties, however, for “this inward focus allowed us to turn our back on a social catastrophe that was beginning to envelop the little church by the sea”: the AIDS epidemic, which hit Provincetown with exquisite brutality. It fell to the Rev. George Welles, McLaughlin’s successor, to take up “the causes of AIDS and gay rights, children, housing and women,” the church history said. He remained until 1997. The rector since 2006 has been the Rev. Terry R. Pannell. Among the congregation’s articulated core values is this:
We believe that we are stewards of a sacred space, whether you see God in the juxtaposition of land and sea, in the natural beauty of our garden, in the charm of our building adorned with the artwork of our predecessors, in what we do here together, or in all of these, we all agree that this is a sanctified place where God can be found and that we are committed to maintaining and protecting it.