Two women had the Chapel of St. John the Divine built on family land to honor their sister, Esther Bernon Carpenter. The dedicatory plaque in the narthex marks her, “whose original plan and purpose it was that a chapel should here be built.” She died in 1896, shortly before the building’s dedication.
Esther Carpenter was a gifted and meticulous writer. Her South County Studies, published by friends of Caroline Hazard in 1924, is essential in any study of the Narragansett Country. Her sisters may well have taken John the Evangelist for its patron, to honor her writing skills.
Saunderstown stands on Boston Neck, the “Southern Tract” of the Atherton Purchase. On July the fourth of 1659, Cogniaquand, a Narragansett Sachem, “in consideration of the greate love and Eaffection, I doe beare unto Englishmen,” granted a wealthy Bostonian, Major Humphrey Atherton, and his associates land on the Bay. The “Purchase” extends from the Annaquatucket River down to Point Judith. Roger Williams was persuaded to witness the transaction, despite the direct contravention of Rhode Island Colony law. In November, the first division was made, granting lands south of Mr. Smith’s trading house that we know as Smith’s Castle to Major Josiah Winslow and Captain Thomas Willett. In 1775, the Willett land descended to his grandchildren. The settlement that developed upon it became known as Willettville.
Esther Carpenter was born in 1848, the daughter of Rev. James Helme Carpenter and Mary Hoxie Hazard. Her childhood was spent in the old Willett house, a mile north of South Ferry, now URI’s Bay Campus. Her great-grandfather had inherited it from his uncle, Francis Willett, grandson of Thomas, the Atherton Purchase beneficiary, and the first English mayor of New York. The Dutch who held Manhattan Island before it became “New York” were richly involved in trade on our coast, as well as Block Island and far up the North (later the Hudson) River.
Willettville evolved into Saunderstown thanks to the enterprise of John A. Saunders, who established a marine railway and shipyard in 1878 adjacent to the ferry that served Newport. In 1889, Stillman Saunders opened a summer hotel, called both the Saunders House and, more grandly, “Outre Mere.” It offered a group of dependent cottages to the summer visitors. Soon, both the old families and the summer people longed for a chapel on Sunday mornings.
The Rev. Philip M. Prescott, a summer visitor from Washington, DC, donated $2,200 and oversaw the construction. Elisha M. Robinson of Wakefield was the builder.
In the 1970’s, Rockwell K. DuMoulin, well-known for his summer houses in Matunuck, added the “sympathetic new wing,” as it is deemed by the Rhode Island Preservation Commission’s study.
In 1910, St. John’s was a mission of Wakefield’s Church of the Ascension, and from some time in the early 1930s to 1948 it was affiliated with St. Paul’s, Wickford.
The Rev. Ed Dart became the first full-time minister of the mission and served from 1960 to 1973. In 1973, the Rev. John B. Lewis III was called to St. John’s and it was under his leadership that the chapel became an independent parish.
The Chapel is a hub of village social life, with its longstanding traditions of the summer fair (held for nearly 60 years) and ice cream social with the Lafayette band (since just after World War II).