Though there have been several churches and institutions in downtown Little Rock for over a century, Christ Episcopal Church has been at Scott and Capital Streets since 1840. That marks probably the longest continuous single use of one location in Little Rock’s history.
Today, the church marks its Septaquintaquinquecentennial. The first church service was held on March 10, 1839, at Little Rock’s Presbyterian Church, which was then on what is now Second Street. The Rt. Rev. Leonidas Polk, missionary bishop of Arkansas, conducted the service. After it was concluded, a group met in the home of Senator Chester Ashley and organized Christ Episcopal Church, named after Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, of which several of those present had been members.
Among the early members of the church were several future Little Rock Mayors including Lambert J. Reardon, John Wassell, Samuel Webb and Gordon Peay. Nicholas Peay, Gordon’s father and a member of the church, served on the Little Rock City Council. Future Little Rock Mayor William Ashley was the first Little Rock resident to be married at Christ Church.
The first sanctuary was constructed in 1840-1841 and was later destroyed by fire in 1873 (most likely due to a lightning strike). After meeting in a variety of places, a chapel was constructed on the property and served as the church’s primary place of worship while the new sanctuary was being built. It opened in 1887. It was in the chapel that future General Douglas MacArthur was baptized as an infant while his family resided in Little Rock.
In 1928, a Parish Hall was built. This was one of the first church buildings in the South which featured a gym and other spaces available for use not just by church members but by the entire city. It would later serve as the temporary sanctuary of Christ Church. On October 1, 1938, the second sanctuary burned just as a renovation had been completed. Though there was no official cause of the fire, it was most likely due to spontaneous combustion of construction materials.
The cornerstone for the third, and current, sanctuary was laid on October 1, 1940. Construction was completed in 1941. It was designed by Edwin Cromwell with the unofficial assistance of the then-Rector, Rev. Dr. William Postell Witsell. (Dr. Witsell appreciated architecture and the arts. He was very instrumental in the design of the stained glass windows which hang in the church today. Charles Witsell, one of the founders of the Witsell, Evans, Rasco firm, is a grandson of Dr. Witsell.) In the 1980s, an addition was built along Scott Street to connect the sanctuary with the Parish Hall.
Along with the revitalization of downtown, Christ Church has been active in implementing innovative programming in a variety of areas including sustainability and the arts. The Rector, Rev. Scott Walters, and Associate Rector, Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander, often pepper their sermons with references to poetry, music (both sacred and secular), writers, artists and even comedians.
The Arts at Christ Church program has brought such varied artists as Mavis Staples, Baltimore Konsort and the Vienna Boys Choir to Little Rock. In 1990, Nichols & Simpson, a Little Rock based organ builder of international renown, constructed a new organ for the Christ Church sanctuary replacing a 1954 organ. While used in worship, it is also used for a variety of organ recitals throughout the year. Christ Church has been a sponsor of the Arkansas Literary Festival for the past several years and participates in the 2nd Friday Art Night with a rotating gallery of Arkansas artists. In addition, the Undercroft debuted in late 2013. This intimate music space is located underneath the sanctuary and offers a venue for acoustic music.
To mark the 175th anniversary, Rt. Rev. Larry R. Benfield, the thirteenth Bishop of the Diocese of Arkansas will be conducting an Evensong service this evening. Prior to being named Bishop, he served as Rector of Christ Church.