In 1729, Baron Stiegel, Catharine the Great and Edmund Burke were born.

That same year, a house of worship — St. John’s Church, 1520 King’s Highway, in the village of Compass — was built. Originally a mission of the Church of England, it is now an independent Episcopal parish.

At 10:30 a.m. Sunday, the church will mark its 290th anniversary with a worship service of Confirmation and Holy Eucharist featuring the Right Rev. Daniel G.P. Gutierrez, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania as celebrant and preacher. A pewter Communion set, dating from 1766, will be used. Congratulatory proclamations from Gov. Tom Wolfe and state Sen. Katie Muth will be read.

Sunday’s service will include the confirmation of three new members. The liturgy will be from the Book of Common Prayer. A fellowship dinner will follow the service.

‘Complex history’

This small church, situated in Chester County just feet from the Lancaster County line, has a rich — and complex — history, said the Rev. Nina George-Hacker, rector of the parish.

George Ross, signatory to the Declaration of Independence and uncle of the man who married Betsy Ross, rented a pew at the church. The Rev. Edward Buchanan, brother of future president James Buchanan, served as rector from 1835 to 1845 and oversaw the construction of the stone church that still stands.

The Rev. Thomas Barton, rector at St. James Church in Lancaster from 1759 to 1778 became the missionary priest to St. John’s. Barton, who had come to America from England, was forced to leave when the Revolutionary War broke out. He died and is buried in New York. St. James Cemetery has a cenotaph - a marker within a cemetery placed in honor of a person whose remains are buried elsewhere - in his honor. 

As a church that predated the American Revolution, one can imagine the tension within the congregation when the war for independence commenced.

St Johns 290th 2

St. John's Episcopal Church is celebrating its 290th anniversary - President James Buchanan's brother, Edward,  was a rector at the church. Wednesday, September 11, 2019

“We have Loyalists and Revolutionaries, we have Colonists and Tories,” George-Hacker said. “The vestry were slaveholders at one time, and yet we baptized freed slaves as communicants.”

Richard and Frances Gilfillan are members of the church.

“Fran’s ancestors were the Tories, and Richard’s (he is an ancestor of George Ross) signed the Declaration of Independence,” she said.

Members of the Skiles and Baldwin families — whose ancestors were among the first to be buried in the church cemetery — still sit in the pews.

Doug Skiles said some of his ancestors supported the British in the Revolution while others stood for independence.

That sense of coming together is a theme for George-Hacker. In her most recent newsletter to the congregation, she wrote:

“The United States managed to make peace with England, and later, North and South were reconciled,” she wrote.

“With the help of God’s grace, let us do the same with our fellow men and women.”

The early church

St. John’s existed before either the Episcopal Church or the United States of America. John Miller, who owned the Compass Inn, sold the ground for 5 shillings. Martha Bezellon, whose headstone is attached to a wall in the Fellowship Hall, provided the funds. A 20-by-22-foot log house of worship was built as a mission of the Church of England. Twenty-four years later, a stone church was built on the same site and completed in 1762.

The church currently has 90 members on the rolls, and Sunday attendance averages between 45 and 60. Some come from as far away as Elizabethtown and Malvern.

“One of the things that struck me about this parish,” George-Hacker said, “is the spirit of joy. It permeates everything.”

Suzanne Turpin, the church’s administrative assistant, moved to Compass from Downington more than 30 years ago.

“I walked into the church and I immediately felt at home,” she said.

Joan D’Aloisio and her husband, Luigi, had a similar experience.

“We were greeted personally by people who came to us,” she said.

Vibrant church

Although they are small in number, the church’s members are involved in church outreach and personal charity.

Posters in the sanctuary note that members donated more than 2,500 hours to dozens of church and charitable causes in the past year.

The church contributes to the Octorara Food Cupboard, the Honey Brook Food Pantry, Good Samaritan Shelter and the Seaman’s Institute.

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the church joins with 10 other churches in the Honey Brook area to provide turkey dinners to people as part of the Steeple to People ministry.

Every October, George-Hacker holds a blessing of the animals service.

And therein lies a unique tale:

Last year, George-Hacker received a phone call asking if she would bless a family horse. The horse, she said, arrived in a foul mood .

“They bring the horse out (of the trailer.) I reach out to bless the horse, the horse calms down ... bows his head, lets me make the sign of the cross on the star he had on his head and the owners said ‘I have never seen that horse that calm.’ ”

It was a fitting blessing for a church where past and present have reconciled differences over the years.