The oldest Anglican church outside the British Isles cannot afford to do outreach these days. But that does not stop St. Peter’s Church in St. George’s, Bermuda, from its ministry to 70,000 annually. Crowds keep showing up, no invitation necessary — and St. Peter’s welcomes them.
With roots dating back to Bermuda’s first permanent settlement in 1612, St. Peter’s attracts more visitors than any other site in Bermuda. Even cruise-ship travelers, who dock at the other end of the island, routinely pack aboard a ferry for this historic town — a United Nations World Heritage site — and then trek by the dozens to St. Peter’s.
That’s when the ministry begins. Volunteers from St. Peter’s keep doors open six hours a day, greet travelers, and acquaint them with Bermuda’s spiritual roots.
“An old church has the feeling of a place where God has met his people for a long time,” said the Rev. W. David Raths, priest-in-charge, in an interview with TLC. St. Peter’s is the oldest Protestant church in the New World.
Some visitors browse the space like a museum, admiring distinct features. A stone-carved baptismal font dates to about 1450. The high pulpit, modest Communion table, and clear windows (not stained glass) speak of a Reformation influence that founders were keen to reflect in the 17th century.
Quite a few who step inside sit or kneel and pray, Raths says. Some write prayers for the congregation to lift up.
“Some of the prayers they leave are really heart-wrenching,” Raths says, but providing this space for visitors “is all we can do” beyond caring for parish needs.
Bermuda’s economy, which depends heavily on international business, has been hard-hit as jobs were eliminated or relocated to the United States in recent years. These changes have translated into hard times for gardeners, housekeepers, nannies, and others who must contend daily with the island’s high cost of living.
Yet St. Peter’s has no resources available, Raths says, to offer meals or other basic assistance. At 70, this Canadian priest with eight years at the parish is already stretched thin.
“I’m more of a manager than a pastor,” he says.
In addition to St. Peter’s, Raths oversees two nearby chapels, where he celebrates the Eucharist weekly, as well as cemeteries both historic and active. He makes sure everyone in the area receives an Anglican burial. When his phone rings during the interview, he doesn’t answer it.
“It’s probably an undertaker,” he jokes.
The staying power of St. Peter’s hasn’t gone unnoticed, even at Buckingham Palace. Anticipating the church’s 400th anniversary last year, Queen Elizabeth II in 2011 bestowed upon it a new distinction. It’s now St. Peter’s Church, Their Majesties Chappell.
To carry on these days, the congregation depends not only on God’s grace and parishioners’ offerings but also a yearly grant from the Bermudan government and $45,000 in visitor donations.
Raths says Bermuda has many churches representing a wide range of denominations. But none has the longevity of St. Peter’s and its extra-provincial diocese, the Anglican Church of Bermuda.
“We will outlast them all,” he says.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald