Summer day trips: St. Thomas in Bath is rich in history
By Deborah Griffin
Sunday, August 18, 2019
BATH — The town of Bath had a rocky beginning.
Early settlers were faced with deadly yellow fever, severe drought and violent coastal storms after sailing across the ocean to escape persecution in their various homelands.
They also had to contend with Tuscarora Indians and the pirate Blackbeard, who made his home on this peninsula for a short time.
Amid the town’s tumultuous history, one thing has remained steadfast.
For three centuries, St. Thomas Episcopal Church has served as a silent sentinel of this picturesque coastal town. The unassuming, single-room, red brick church has held strong — a testament to the unshakable faith of the early founders.
Built in 1734, it is the oldest church, in North Carolina’s oldest town. Bath first was settled in 1695, then incorporated in 1705.
The church has enjoyed a perpetual congregation throughout its history, with or without a resident priest. Even when the church fell into disrepair in the mid-1800s, faithful members still held services there, according to Reverend Diane Tomlinson, priest at St. Thomas since October 2014.
Services continue to be held here each Sunday morning, as well as at special times throughout the year.
Just like the black walnut trees, and longleaf and loblolly pines which adorn the grounds, St. Thomas has remained deeply rooted in the community, located on Craven Street, just off of Bath’s Main Street.
Both streets meander out to Bonner Point, a State Historic Site situated on the edge of the Pamlico River, on land between two tranquil creeks.
Early founders of the church united to form the St. Thomas Parish long before they had walls within which to worship.
During those years, records indicate the parish consisted of a small group, without a building or minister, that began holding services with lay leaders in local homes around 1701.
Records also show that books from England were shipped to leaders of the St. Thomas Parish in 1701 to establish the first public library in the colony.
It was not until 1734 construction began on the church building.
Evidence shows that Blackbeard (some historians believe he was Edward Teach) made Bath his headquarters for his nefarious piracy exploits during the early 1700’s.
Since the church’s parish was established by 1701, some brave parishioners might have been tasked with approaching the pirate, beseeching him to turn from his evil ways.
Researchers believe many of his crew members were the sons and slaves of Bath’s plantation owners.
Blackbeard was killed in a bloody battle off Ocracoke Island in November of 1718, which means he would have not lived long enough to see the walls of St. Thomas erected.
'Think and reflect'
As Tomlinson was considering her move to the quiet, historical church from her home in Detroit, Mich., she said she was intrigued by the lore surrounding the building and the town.
She also was looking for a group of parishioners not stuck in religious ritual.
“I was looking for a congregation who were willing to think and reflect,” Tomlinson said.
The tranquil, one square-mile fishing village of Bath makes reflection seem as easy as the coastal breeze. Most parishioners walk to church.
“We are lost today in our inability to just 'be,’” Tomlinson said. “Today, people have to know what is coming. If they would just take a moment to be quiet and just sit — it is very hard for this generation to do. We know what everyone is doing all of the time. We all have FOMO (the fear of missing out).”
To just be, she suggests listening to music, "closing our eyes, sitting outside and listening to the birds. If we don’t recharge, we are no good to anyone."
Tomlinson said she enjoys the diversity of her congregation.
Many residents are retirees, who have migrated to the peaceful, relaxed pace of the waterfront town.
“Bath has people from all different backgrounds because of the draw of the water and the weather,” Tomlinson said. “The people who live here are mostly transplants, so, it is a very friendly climate.
“We attract people from all ages, political views and social aspects. We feel like it is an honor to love one another despite our differences,” she said.
Tomlinson said she reflects on what life was like for the first settlers, acknowledging the hardships they endured to establish the town and church.
“They were people willing to take a risk,” she said.
She said the faith of her current flock is built upon the faith of those first congregations and those throughout the ages. She feels a sense of obligation to those who came before.
“It is our responsibility to keep the church going,” she added.
She does not view the church building as a monument to the past.
“The building is something to relish and enjoy. But I see it as something that represents always looking to the future,” she said. “As a historic church, we acknowledge where we have come from and embrace where we are going."
Tomlinson said St. Thomas is an anchor for the town.
“If there is any kind of celebration in Bath, this is where it is held,” she said.
But the weathered church also serves as a beacon of hope, Tomlinson said.
The church is involved in the local elementary school with a reading program and a backpack ministry, which sends food home with underprivileged children.
Members also are involved with the Salvation Army, have an education scholarship to Beaufort County Community College and donate to such ministries as the Literacy Volunteers of Beaufort County and The Blind Center.
“We find that volunteering our services and helping those in need, locally and abroad, enriches our faith and strengthens our sense of community,” Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson is the 51st rector of St. Thomas. She was ordained into the Episcopal Church in 2006 and has served parishes in Detroit and Bloomfield in Michigan, as well as in Baltimore. She has been married to Mark for 34 years.
Tomlinson said the church doors are never closed and people from all walks of life are welcome.
“Whether you are wearing a suit and tie or shorts and flip flops you are welcome here,” she said.
“It is a great place to worship,” Tomlinson said. “We take the work of the gospel seriously. But we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
St. Thomas is located in Bath at 101 Craven Street.
Sunday worship services are at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.