In 1833, a group of small businessmen in New Bedford applied to the diocese to found an Episcopal mission here, where at the time, the Quakers predominated the religious landscape. In 1835, a small wooden Gothic church designed by Russel Warren was built on Union Street by the newly incorporated parish of Grace. The slowly growing congregation struggled for many years, with financial hardship and the leadership of changing rectors, none of whom stayed for more than a few years.
During this period a wealthy Quaker gentleman, Samuel Rodman, became curious about the Episcopal presence, and because he had two young wards who were Lutheran, he bought a pew for them in Grace Church, as he felt that the Episcopal liturgy would be closer to their religious tradition. His wife and his four other children ultimately converted and became members of Grace. When Mr. Rodman died, there was suddenly enough money to build the great stone edifice that we now enjoy as our spiritual home. Erected in 1880, the current building was designed by the firm of Ware & Van Brunt, and sits in what had been Mr. Rodman’s back garden. Grace House was built to accommodate the needs of the growing parish ten years later.
In the late nineteenth century, there was a swelling of the Episcopal presence due to the demise of the whaling industry and the introduction of manufacturing, which brought a great wave of immigration from Great Britain. These new immigrants joined Grace, while at the same time many of the more prominent families in the area began to convert. The parish grew to over a thousand communicants, and missions were established in other parts of the city, in Fairhaven, and in Dartmouth, many of which still exist today as daughter parishes of Grace. Under the leadership of several more long-term rectors, Grace became more involved in outreach endeavors, establishing a men’s mission on the docks, and participating in war relief during the First World War. Myriad parish organizations were established during this period.
Liturgically, Grace was decidedly “low church”, and was slowly brought into some of the innovations of the Oxford movement by two high-church rectors in the 1930s. They were followed by the rectorship of the Rev. Philip C. Douglas, who guided Grace for over 33 years, the longest rectorship in the history of the diocese. He and his assistant, tirelessly ministered to our evergrowing parish.
Then, all changed in one night in November of 1987. A fire was set near the chancel which destroyed the interior of the church and All Saints’ Chapel, leaving the outer walls, part of the roof, the tower, and Grace House still standing. Over a period of four years, the church was rebuilt, the Phoenix the new symbol of its rebirth. Under the leadership of a series of dedicated and progressive rectors and a vibrant and forward-looking lay ministry and congregation, Grace entered the new millennium as a welcoming place to experience God’s love for all who walk through its doors, wherever they may be on their journey of faith.