History of St. John’s

The Church of Saint John the Evangelist

Barrytown, New York 


Our History

    St. John’s is located just above the eastern bank of New York’s Hudson River, with views over fields to the Catskill Mountains.  As an integral part of the Mid-Hudson River Valley, St. John’s is surrounded by history.  We are blessed with unparalleled natural beauty, a major world city just 100 miles south, and a diverse and gifted community of people from the small towns along the River, as well as weekend and summer residents. We cherish our close relationship with Bard College, one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country.

In 1857, John Bard erected the Chapel of the Holy Innocents on his property in Annandale.  In 1860, he donated the land and the Chapel, and he and John L. Aspinwall, both wealthy local landowners, provided funds to establish St. Stephen’s College (later Bard College) as a theological seminary.

In 1864, Walter Delafield (then a St. Stephen’s student) organized St. Peter’s Brotherhood, a missionary society comprised of students and a Warden, to provide for the pastoral needs of less wealthy members of the local community. John Aspinwall took an interest in the Brotherhood and became a supporter.

In 1870, the Brotherhood opened a chapel three miles south of the college to hold services, meet with local people and teach their children. That same year, they erected another chapel, St. Peter’s Mission, in Red Hook. After John Aspinwall’s death, his wife, Jane Moore Breck Aspinwall, decided to erect a church in his memory.

The Free Church of St. John the Evangelist was an outgrowth of the work of St. Peter’s Brotherhood as supported by the Aspinwalls.  It was designed and named Free Church because, unlike most Episcopal churches at that time, it did not require pew rent.   In 1874, the cornerstone of St. John’s, the new church designed by architect William Potter, was laid, and later that year, on October 4, 1874, the church was consecrated.

Services and pastoral care were provided by the clergy professors of St. Stephen’s (Bard). When St. John’s became an independent parish in 1874, the priest no longer served as a professor at St. Stephen’s.

In 1926, the Brotherhood’s two chapels (now called Aspinwall Hall and Breck Hall) were moved from their original locations nearby to form a single building, which is now the church complex. The Aspinwalls and another local family, the Wagners, continued to provide core financial support for the church until the 1950’s, making it possible for it to continue with a full-time rector.  Like other wealthy families of that time, they believed in providing support and care to those in need.

In the years during and after the end of World War II, their support dwindled and St. John’s was no longer financially able to support a full-time rector.  Between 1949 and 1970 our rectors had to divide their time among St. John’s and two or more other parishes.  Eventually the rectory was split into rental apartments to provide income, and now Bard provides housing for the shared position.

In 1970 The Reverend Frederick Shafer became the first to hold the dual position of St. John’s Rector and Bard College Professor of Religion.  The Reverend Bruce Chilton, became our Rector in 1987 and also held the positions of the Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard and the Chaplain of the College.  The Rev. Mary Grace Williams began her tenure in 2016 as the Vicar as well as the Chaplain of the College at Bard and the Dean of Community Life.

Our Buildings and Grounds

Three separate buildings were joined together in 1926 to create our current church complex. In addition to the sanctuary, Breck Hall, which was moved from its original location down the road, is now our welcoming space (narthex) .  Aspinwall Hall, the third building, was originally St. Peter’s Chapel in Red Hook, and now serves as our parish hall with a large, fully-equipped kitchen.  It adjoins the Church office, the Sacristy, a small bathroom, We are proud of the warm, welcoming ambiance of St. John’s.

Our beautifully-melded complex is a picturesque Carpenter Gothic church with many lovely stained glass windows representative of several eras and styles. They bring light and color into the church proper and the two Halls.  Recently, the windows have been lovingly restored and the ceiling of the apse painted its original deep blue color overlaid with gold leaf stars.  Under each star, invisible to the eye, is the name of a person buried in our serene church cemetery, which surrounds the church on two sides.

The church organ and rood screen were installed in 1934, in honor of our 60th anniversary.  The light behind the main cross over the altar has been lit 24 hours a day, every day, for at least 58 years.  According to our organist, the filament has never burned out.