A history of the parish, arranged chronologically.
1752 – The Church of England is established in the newly formed Orange County by the General Assembly of North Carolina. St. Matthew’s Parish is established in Hillsborough.
1757 – A one-acre lot is purchased as a building site for St. Matthew’s in Hillsborough. About this same time, a “chapel of ease” is built on a hilltop crossroads in the southern part of the county. The chapel is meant to spare more remote parishioners the long journey to the church in Hillsborough. The small log building, known as New Hope Chapel, stood where the Carolina Inn is now.
1759 – Additional land is given in the northern part of Orange County to build St. Mary’s Chapel, for the similar purpose of serving more remote parishioners.
1767 – Governor Tryon presents Scotland-born George Micklejohn to serve as minister for the St. Matthew’s Parish, and work begins on the building in Hillsborough shortly thereafter.
1776–Post-Revolutionary Period – Anglican services are suspended. Micklejohn, a Tory, accompanies Loyalist forces at the Battle of Moore’s Creek and is captured. He spends the remainder of the war, by gentleman’s agreement, in Granville County and never resettles in Orange. During the revolution, the St. Matthew’s church building was used as a hospital. After the war, it houses the first Hillsborough Academy and, in 1788, the convention that considers ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The New Hope Chapel disappears during the American Revolution; the settlement on New Hope Chapel Hill remains, however.
1789 – The University of North Carolina was founded in 1789. During this time, traveling clergy visited, but a permanent Episcopal congregation did not form again for half a century. The St. Matthew’s building falls into disuse and its site is used for the construction of the Presbyterian Church (in 1818).
1818 – Following the formation of the Diocese of North Carolina in 1817, services resume at St. Mary’s Chapel under the leadership of lay readers and missionary priests.
1823 – Newly elected and consecrated Bishop Ravenscroft visits Orange County.
1824 – St. Matthew’s parish is reorganized under the leadership of the Rev. William Mercer Green. Land is donated by vestryman Thomas Ruffin, and Green becomes rector of St. Matthew’s in 1825, with oversight of services at St. Mary’s and another chapel as well. While rector, Green installs a slave gallery at the church.
1837 – The Rev. Green accepts a position at UNC as Chaplain and Professor of Belles Lettres, and he resigns from St. Matthew’s the following year.
1840 – The Rev. Green proposes the building of an Episcopal Church building in Chapel Hill, at the Diocesan Convention in this year. The building begins with pledges amounting to $1,200, but funds fell short and progress stalled.
May 1842 – The Rev. Green presides over the organization of the Church of the Atonement, an Episcopal parish in Chapel Hill with fifteen communicants. The congregation continues to grow, worshipping in one another’s homes for five years as the work on their little church progresses. The building is constructed with handmade bricks fired in kilns by enslaved persons owned by The Rev. Green. The final cost was probably around $5,400 – more than double the original estimate of $2,400.
October 19, 1848 – Bishop Levi Silliman Ives consecrates the new church, which includes a wooden gallery for slaves, as the “Chapel of the Holy Cross.” He accurately describes the scale of the building by calling it a chapel, but declared, “We’ll name it for the deed and not the doctrine.” The parish numbers 22 communicants, 5 of whom are University students. It is the first denominational chapel that students are allowed to attend, rather than attending the University chapel.
1854 – Cornelia, a slave belonging to (and the niece of) parishioner and lay leader Mary Ruffin Smith, is baptized in the chapel. She would later raise her granddaughter, the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, in nearby Durham, N.C.
1868-1875 – The University is closed during Reconstruction. Attendance suffers, at one point shrinking so much that there are not enough [male] parishioners to form a Vestry.
1875 – Devoted parishioner Mary Ruffin Smith donates $100 to put a new slate roof on the Chapel. This slate roof remains on the Chapel until its major renovation in 1950. Around this same time, the Ladies’ Church Sewing Society – the first women’s fellowship at Chapel of the Cross, likely organized in the early days of the parish – also replaced the Chapel’s old, central chandelier with side lamps that were in use until electricity was installed.
April 10, 1880 – Christ Church Raleigh presents the Chapel of the Cross with its Chapel bell.
1890 – The Rev. Edward M. Gushee is appointed rector, a position he served for only six months. During that time, he undertook revisions to the Chapel using funds he personally raised. Changes included rearranging the pews to create a center aisle, moving the Chapel’s two heating stoves from the middle of the room to the ends, cutting an arch through the south wall to create a sanctuary for the alter, and the construction of a new office and vesting room with a fireplace on the southwest corner.
November 19, 1901 – The Vestry approves the placement of a furnace beneath the Chapel.
1913 – Construction begins on a new rectory.
1916 – The vested choir is introduced. In February of this same year, construction on the Battle Memorial Parish House is completed after five years of planning and fundraising, led by the rector, the Rev. Homer Starr. The cost of the one-story building was approximately $6,000. It contained a single classroom and a fellowship hall, which served as the dining room until 2014. The construction loan, at an interest rate of 2.8%, was paid in April 1918 by members of the family of the recently deceased Kemp Plumber Battle.
1920 – A resolution at the 1920 North Carolina Episcopal Convention calls for the enlargement of the Chapel of the Cross, to better serve the University community.
1921 – The Vestry, under the leadership of the rector, the Rev. Alfred Lawrence, asks the distinguished church architect Hobart B. Upjohn to design a new building to be connected to “the old chapel” by a cloister. Major funding for the new building is provided by a $50,000 pledge from William A. Erwin in memory of his grandfather, William Rainey Holt, who incidentally was a classmate of the parish’s first rector, William Mercer Green, at UNC where he graduated in the class of 1817. Mr. Erwin’s pledge is contingent upon the parish also enlarging and improving the parish house, linking it to the Chapel. A fundraiser is hired to canvass other parishes in the diocese to help pay the remaining mortgage (estimated around $10,000) but unfortunately his salary consumes most of what he raised. The payments on the mortgage subsequently require 13% of the church’s operating budget until the debt is paid in a Retire the Debt campaign in 1942.
1922 – The Vestry approves the addition of a secretary to assist the Rector. The secretary’s duties also included those of choirmaster and superintendent of buildings and grounds. Mr. George Lawrence was hired in September of this year.
May 12, 1925 – The new building, now called the Church, is consecrated. Male students in the campus ministry resist the inclusion of female students.
1926 – Mr. Alfred Lawrence publicly opposes fundamentalist attacks on teaching evolution in public schools. At the Diocesan Convention, he introduces a resolution, which is adopted, “opposing all efforts to limit freedom of thought, freedom of teaching and discussion, and freedom of research.”
1931 – The Rev. Thomas Wright begins serving at Chapel of the Cross, as the first diocesan chaplain to college students in the Episcopal Church. Wright later becomes the national coordinator of campus ministries (in 1933) and then the Bishop of East Carolina (1945).
1941-1946 – During this time period, the campus ministry sees some shifts. With thousands of military personnel on campus for World War II, chaplains are kept busy. The Scopes trial causes significant tension on campus, which is felt in the campus ministry. And Diocesan events bring black and white students together for speakers and discussion. In 1945, the staff campus minister, the Rev. Emmet Gribbin, by then the rector’s son-in-law, respectfully declines the Vestry’s call to be the new rector, preferring to continue in campus ministry.
1945 – The vestry calls the Rev. David Yates from St. Philip’s, Durham, to be the rector. Mr. Yates was a virtual pacifist a rarity during and after World War II. He later successfully pushed for the inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer the collect “For Our Enemies.”
David Yates, Former Rector
The Rev. Yates was a North Carolina native who spent the majority of his life and ministry in the South. He served as rector of Chapel of the Cross beginning April 1945 until September of 1959, when he became rector at Otey Memorial Church in Sewanee, Tennessee.
The Rev. Yates insisted as rector that a Christian community was obligated to pray for the enemy and respect the rights of conscientious objectors, however difficult, during World War II. He was also deliberate to ensure that people of color were welcomed in the parish long before most institutions were integrated. It was once said that while he was rector, more students from our parish went into the ministry than from any other parish in the country at the time.
1950 – The Chapel is closed for a year after being declared unsafe, following discovery of major structural damage from roof leaks and foundation deterioration. A Restoration Fund drive is undertaken to pay the $21,000 repair cost, approximately half of which is raised.
1952 – The Church of the Holy Family, Chapel Hill’s second Episcopal congregation, is commissioned by the parish. Mr. Yates also racially integrates the parish that year, two years before the Supreme Court’s decision, Brown vs. The Board of Education.
1955 – A Planning Committee report calls for the creation of a new wing on the Parish House to provide additional classrooms and space for the college student program. A new campaign, called the Our Appointed Tasks campaign, is established to raise $184,000 for construction and to pay the remaining Chapel debt.
1958 – The new addition to the Parish House is dedicated in September.
1960 – The vestry calls the Rev. Thomas Thrasher of Montgomery AL. Mr. Thrasher participated in the Selma Peace March and was reputedly the most trusted white clergymen by the African-American community in Montgomery.
1962 – In August, the final Chapel Restoration Fund drive generates enough funds to retire all outstanding debt.
September 12, 1965 – Church School begins on Sunday mornings.
1971 – The vestry calls the Rev. Peter James Lee of St. John’s, Lafayette Square, Washington DC. Mr. Lee, only 33 years old, and his young family again revitalized the parish’s ministry to young families.
Peter Lee, Former Rector & the 12th Bishop of Virginia
Rt. Rev. Lee served as our rector from 1971 to 1984, at which point he became the Bishop of Virginia until his retirement in 2009. In March, 2013, he began serving as the Provisional Bishop in the Diocese of East Carolina. The Rev. Lee’s time at Chapel of the Cross was marked by several significant shifts, including the adoption and acceptance of the 1979 prayer book, the then-new presence of women at the pulpit and altar, and a significant renovation of the church buildings.
Read the sermon that Rt. Rev. Lee gave at the celebration commemorating the parish’s 150th anniversary, October 18, 1998.
1972 – The Chapel is added to the National Register of Historic Places.
1973 – Extensive repairs are made to the Parish House and the Church to address problems caused by leaks from the deteriorating roof. The successful Cornerstone Campaign, along with the sale of donated property and the use of operating funds, covers the entire cost of these repairs.
February 13, 1977 – The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray celebrates her first Eucharist in the Chapel, where her grandmother had been baptized 123 years earlier as a slave girl. Pauli Murray was the first black woman ordained to the Episcopal priesthood, and she was also the first woman to celebrate the Eucharist at Chapel of the Cross and in the state of North Carolina.
Pauli Murray, Renowned Civil Rights Activist & the First African-American Woman to Be Ordained to the Episcopal Priesthood
The Rev. Dr. Murray was raised by her grandparents in nearby Durham, N.C., and had a strong connection to our parish. Her grandmother had been was baptized at Chapel of the Cross while she was still under slavery. After becoming ordained, Rev. Dr. Murray offered her first communion in our chapel – acting as the first woman to celebrate the Eucharist at Chapel of the Cross and in the state of North Carolina. Read more about the relationship between the parish and Rev. Dr. Murray in this sermon from Bishop Lee on the parish’s 150th anniversary, and in Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori’s comments at the 30th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Murray’s first Eucharist.
March 9, 1979 – The Vestry adopts a resolution concerning burial of human ashes in the churchyard. Each burial location is to be unmarked and undecorated, with a common plaque providing the names and dates of birth and death of persons whose ashes are buried there.
1980 – Extensive renovations of parish buildings are completed. The church is closed for three months during the renovations, which included the installation of the new $220,000 Kleuker 61-pipe organ.
Read More Parish Buildings History, a 1981 overview of the history of the different buildings and facilities of the Chapel of the Cross, reaching back to the organization of the first Anglican chapel in the area (and the source of the town’s name)
1983 – Anna Louise Pagano becomes the first woman ordained at Chapel of the Cross, first as a deacon and then in April 1984, as a priest. She remained on the staff until 1992.
1985 – The vestry calls the Rev. Stephen Elkins-Williams, who had joined the staff as associate priest in 1983, to serve as the rector. His 30 years as rector are marked by an expansion of the church’s ministry and outreach to the community and campus.
Stephen Elkins-Williams, Former Rector
The Rev. Elkins-Williams served as our rector from 1985 to 2015. He first came to Chapel of the Cross in 1982 as an associate priest and was selected to become rector after then-rector Peter Lee was appointed the 12th Bishop of Virginia. The Rev. Elkins-Williams has served with an intentional focus on expanding the outreach ministry of the parish and its role in the community.
1991-93 – Among repeated calls for a large fellowship hall, new renovation and expansion projects are undertaken. The new slate floor in the Church is installed, an elevator is added to the building, the courtyard is enclosed, and the facilities are made accessible for individuals with disabilities. A stairwell is also added to the east end of the building.
1996 – An embezzlement of an estimated $500,000 is discovered. The former parish bookkeeper was indicted on his 30th birthday. He cooperated with the investigation and was later found guilty, serving a sentence of 11 months in prison.
2001 – A Space Use Study Committee convenes to address the continued challenges in operating the parish programs. The report underscored the need for a large fellowship hall. Long-range planning committees form to consider replacing the existing Parish House with a new facility.
2003 – The Church of the Advocate, an Episcopal mission of the Chapel of the Cross in partnership with Holy Family and St. Matthews, is founded. The Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, sponsored for Ordination by the Chapel of the Cross, becomes the founding Vicar, drawing on congregants of all three parishes plus the unchurched.
2006 – The new Dobson Organ, the Opus 82, is installed in the Chapel. It is the first organ to be designed and scaled specifically for that space.
May 2, 2010 – A song honors the combined 100 years of service at the Chapel of the Cross of the four senior staff members: Wylie S. Quinn, Stephen Elkins-Williams, Tambria Lee, and Victoria Jamieson-Drake. Read the lyrics here.
2013 – Ground breaks on a new demolition and construction project for the church.
June 15, 2013 – The Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple was ordained North Carolina’s Bishop Suffragan. She is the sixth person to be ordained into this role and the first female bishop of the Episcopal Church’s Province IV. The Chapel of the Cross sponsored her for ordination in the mid-1980s and ordained her a transitional deacon in 1987.
January 2015 – Construction wraps of the new addition to the church including the Parish Hall, Welcome Center, choir and youth rooms.
2015 – The Most Rev. Michael Curry, former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, elected as Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church, becoming the first African American to hold the role.
August 1, 2016 – The Rev. Elizabeth Marie Melchionna began serving as the 29th Rector of The Chapel of the Cross, the first female rector of the parish.
The Chapel of the Cross during the COVID-19 Pandemic
On March 15, 2020, The Chapel of the Cross, in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, canceled in-person Sunday services, and for the first time, livestreamed a church service. That first service was a service of Morning Prayer, filmed from the Chapel with an iPad and broadcast to Facebook Live.
During the following months, the parish responded to the pandemic in a myriad of ways. A group of volunteers undertook a project to phone every member. The Children’s Formation Director filmed daily messages to children and families, which continued throughout the year and well into the next. Children’s Faith-at-Home packages were delivered to over 100 doorsteps. EYC, parish choirs, ECM and other small groups pivoted to a digital platform. Easter services were broadcast on Facebook and we offered Eucharist-at-Home kits for Feast days. In October, we returned to in-person worship outdoors. The 2020 Christmas Pageant was filmed and presented by youth, children and families, at their homes, then digitally mixed for a video presentation. Weddings, funerals and baptisms continued throughout the pandemic as we took advantage of the church grounds to hold smaller services, making sure the work of the church continued.
Throughout 2021, as health metrics improved, we were gradually able to increase attendance. We held five Easter services outdoors in the beautiful churchyard on Franklin Street. In June, we began gathering indoors again, worshiping together in the parish hall. And, in August, 2021, we returned to the newly restored Nave.
2021 – The You Are The Light capital campaign allowed for retiring of the construction debt from the 2015 construction and a restoration of the Nave for the first time in 40 years, including ceiling and window repair, along with audio and video upgrades.