The first Episcopal service in East Haddam was held in 1750 by a traveling minister of the Church of England, the Rev. Ebenezer Punderson. In 1766, Asa Beebe became the Lay Reader of the Millington Church of England. In this capacity he led services in East Haddam and Middle Haddam for the next ten years.
During the Revolutionary War period, most members of Anglican church fled to Canada to escape persecution. After the removal of Asa Beebe from East Haddam, the local Church of England was disbanded.
The seeds of the present Episcopal Society were planted in 1791 when about 32 members of the East Haddam First Church of Christ left in a dispute over plans to locate the new First Church meeting house on Town Street. In all probability, those who left were people who lived near the Connecticut River landings, since the journey for them (in a time when most walked to church) would have been a hardship.
During the course of 1791, this group’s members were recognized and confirmed as members of the Episcopal Church. They elected their first officers and began to solicit funds to build a church. That church, pictured here, was completed in 1795, and stood on top of a hill overlooking the East Haddam river landings, along what is now known as Porges Road. St. Stephen’s is believed to be the last church consecrated by Bishop Samuel Seabury in America.
Twelve pieces of hardware from the original St. Stephen’s are considered excellent examples of early New England hand-wrought iron work. They were made by local blacksmiths of the Warner family. These pieces are now part of the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.
This first building served the parish for approximately one hundred years. In the early 1890s, Judge Julius Attwood, a man of local renown and member of St. Stephen’s Vestry for over 47 years, offered land to the church for a new sanctuary. This land is located on what is now 31 Main Street, directly abutting the River View Cemetery.
Within a decade Judge Attwood’s gift was realized. The new sanctuary was constructed from fieldstone and mortar in a combination of Victorian architectural styles, the most notable being Shingle and Gothic Revival. This is in stark contrast to the colonial meeting house style of the original sanctuary, as the present church interior has many gothic elements, including lancets, friezes and quatre-foils. The hammer beams are similarly decorated and the main altar table features three elaborately carved panels. There are seven stained glass windows flanking the nave and three behind and above the altar. Of these three, the center panel depicts our patron Saint, with the inscription displaying the words atrributed to Stephen before his martyrdom: “Behold, I see the heavens opened,” (Acts 7:56). This building was consecrated on May 1, 1890, and a history of the parish prepared by Mrs. Ronald J. Williams quotes an article about the event:
“After the benediction, all who would, went to the Gelston House, which was very kindly thrown open for the occasion by the proprietor, and partook of the abundance which had been provided by the ladies of the neighborhood.”
Today, St. Stephen’s sanctuary can be found directly opposite the Rathbun Library, just two tenths of a mile from East Haddam village center, which contains the famed swing bridge, Gelston House and iconic Goodspeed Opera House.
Interestingly, the church is set on land that for a short time also held the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse, which was used as private residence by the descendants of Captain Elijah Attwood until 1899. Thanks to efforts of Sons of the American Revolution, the house was preserved as a historic site and moved to the hill above and behind the church (the following from the Connecticut SAR website):
“On April 26, 1899 Judge Julius Attwood presented the schoolhouse to Colonel Richard Henry Greene of New York, in trust, to be turned over to the Connecticut Sons of the Revolution. On July 26, 1974 the Connecticut Sons of the Revolution deeded the 8 acres and the building to the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution who maintain it to this day. “
There have been significant additions and alterations to the church and grounds since the late 19th century, including the bell tower, Rectory (now used for offices and classrooms) and Fellowship Hall which connects these latter two buildings.