In 1819, nearly 30 years before the construction of Wheeling's landmark Suspension Bridge, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church was established. Wheeling, a community of several hundred homes, was rapidly becoming the "Gateway to the West." The new National Road was bringing newcomers to the community every day. The reports of Lewis and Clark energized the expeditions that traveled through Wheeling. It was time of unprecedented growth and optimism; a propitious time to form a church on America's frontier.
Few English-trained clergy in the Virginia diocese served on the frontier. Indeed, John Wesley separated his Methodists from the "Mother Church" in 1784 because the Episcopal Church was unable to meet the liturgical needs of the ever expanding West.
The Reverend Joseph Doddridge of Charlestown, Va. (now Wellsburg, West Virginia), was instrumental in the establishment of the Episcopal Church in the Upper Ohio Valley. Mr. Doddridge, who had been an active Methodist, was distraught when Methodism separated from the Episcopal Church. After appropriate education at Washington College, now Washington and Jefferson College, in Washington, Pa., he presented himself for Episcopal orders. He was impatient with the lack of support of the Virginia diocese as he watched the rapid growth of the Methodists and Baptists on the Frontier.
While Bishop Richard Moore remonstrated Rev. Mr. Doddridge for his criticism, it is to be noted that until that time the bishop spoke of what is now Shepherdstown, West Virginia, as being far West.
Rev. Mr. Doddridge held the first Episcopal services in Steubenville, Ohio, and his preaching took him to St. Clairsville, Ohio, and Chillicothe, Ohio. Some suggest he was responsible for the formation of the Ohio diocese. By 1800, Rev. Mr. Doddridge was regularly serving congregations at the present locations of Wellsburg, West Virginia, and West Liberty, West Virginia. At West Liberty, Moses Chapline, who would later join others in forming St. Matthew's, was one of the persons who arranged Rev. Mr. Doddridge's services.
The first bishop to gather Episcopalians in Wheeling was not Bishop Moore of the Virginia diocese, as would be expected, but the bishop of the Ohio/Indiana diocese, The Right Reverend Philander Chase.
The first Episcopal service held in the western frontier town of Wheeling, Va., was in 1816 in the courthouse, at what is now 10th and Main Streets, and was conducted by Bishop Chase. Bishop Chase was instrumental in the establishment of Kenyon College and Bexley Hall in Gambier, Ohio. He returned to Wheeling periodically to conduct the Anglican services until St. Matthew's was established (in 1819) and the first rector arrived (in 1820). Bishop Chase became widely known for his profound influence on the Episcopal Church.
It was said that John Carter of St. Clairsville, Ohio, invited the bishop to Wheeling. However, the result of that meeting at the courthouse was the organization of a parish "in the borough of Wheeling, Va., under the title of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church." The 25 charter members were John Armstrong, Jr., Thomas H. Armstrong, John Bier, Samuel Chamberlain, Moses W. Chapline, Samuel H. Chapline, Thomas M. Coartes, John Eoff, John Good, William L. Good, William Gray, Charles D. Know, Joshua Norton, William Perinne, Patrick Ray, Southmayd Scovil, Moses Shepherd, Richard Simms, John M. Smith, Robert C. Thompson, and H. Thornburg. The first parish meeting was held on May 11, 1819, and Vestry was appointed to serve until the next Easter Monday. John Good and Richard Simms were named wardens, and William Chapline Jr., S. Scovil, and John C. Williams were vestrymen.
The new congregation continued to meet at the courthouse. Rev. Mr. Doddridge officiated at services until Christmas 1820, when St. Matthew's secured its first rector, The Reverend John Armstrong from Frederick, Maryland. "Mr. Armstrong's salary was set at the munificent sum of $100 per annum."
In 1821, Noah Zane offered land for a market and several churches. Commissioners were appointed in February to take title to property, and the Vestry chose a lot at the northern end of the present Market Plaza. The cornerstone was laid by brick masons on May 9 for a 60-foot by 45-foot brick building with a large bell tower. Inside were 72 large pews, a high pulpit, a gallery on three sides and an organ.
While much of the funding for the church building came from Wheeling, it was necessary for Rev. Mr. Armstrong to make numerous trips to Philadelphia, Pa., to solicit funds. On one of those trips in the seventh year of his rectorship, John Armstrong died in his carriage while crossing the mountains at the age of 58. His body was returned to Wheeling and buried in the church he loved so much.
When it was time to consecrate the new church, Bishop Moore was too infirm to travel, so Bishop White of Pennsylvania came to Wheeling to administer the rite of confirmation and to consecrate the new building.
After the death of Rev. John Armstrong, his brother, The Reverend William Armstrong, then rector of Zion Church, Frederick, Maryland, was elected to succeed him. However, Rev. Mr. Armstrong declined the call, but recommended Reverend John Thomas Wheat, who claimed to be the first white child born in Washington, D.C. He was subsequently called and served as the second rector from August 1828 until June 1832.
The Vestry again offered the rectorship to Rev. William Armstrong who this time accepted and became one of the most honored and beloved rectors. By 1836, when Wheeling was chartered as a city, the congregation had so grown that it was necessary to secure a larger building. A brick building which stood at the current site of the Fort Henry Club was remodeled and served for some months. But this building also proved unsatisfactory, largely because of the growing Sunday school program under the direction of John F. Clark, brother-in-law of Rev. Mr. Armstrong.
The third church building was of Grecian Doric design built at the present location of 12th and Byron Streets and consecrated on October 27, 1837, by Bishop William Meade. Bishop Peterkin's history tells the story of Bishop Meade's arrival in Wheeling without his vestments, and how ladies of the church quickly fashioned a robe with long flowing sleeves for him. It is reported that many of the Wheeling ladies thought that the bishop needed a wife.
By 1853, the St. Matthew's congregation had so grown that The Reverend E. T. Perkins was appointed to assist Rev. Mr. Armstrong who had served 21 years as rector. In that same year, St. Matthew's hosted the first diocesan convention to be held west of the Allegheny Mountains. Bishop Meade was ill and unable to attend, so Bishop J. Johns was the presiding officer. The next year, Rev. Mr. Armstrong, whose health was failing, resigned because he felt it his duty to serve his remaining days in a small parish in Maryland. Rev. Mr. Perkins succeeded Rev. Mr. Armstrong as rector in 1854.
Wheeling's famous Suspension Bridge was now in place and the city continued to grow. St. Matthew's attendance was pressing the limits of the building and discussion was well under way concerning the formation of a new parish south of Wheeling Creek.
On Palm Sunday 1856, St. John's Church was established in South Wheeling with The Reverend George K. Warner appointed as rector. With the coming of the Civil War, it was not a propitious time to organize a new parish. The young parish had difficulty attracting clergy and those who accepted the rectorship stayed but a short time. Little support was forthcoming from the diocese, but St. Matthew's lent as much help as it could, offering to share in the cost of a rector and contributing funds for a new church.
The cornerstone for a new building was laid on June 16, 1867, but the congregation was unable to cover the cost. The trustees decided to issue bonds to cover the debt, but the congregation couldn't make the required payments. The building had cost nearly $25,000 to construct and, in 1871, $10,029 was still owed. In May 1875, the bondholders demanded payment, and the church building was auctioned in July. In spite of plans to rent a hall and keep the parish going, the congregation, including its corporate records, returned to St. Matthew's.
In July 1858, a committee of the Vestry was appointed "to inquire and report at their earliest convenience as to the expediency of providing an adequate place in the city to be devoted to the public religious worship of the Church." In September, the committee reported that the time was not expedient, instead plans were formulated to alter the interior of the church to accommodate ten more pews.
In 1860, the congregation had completely outgrown the facility, and plans were again proposed to expand the current building. However, the congregation was not enthusiastic about further remodeling. At the congregational meeting they tabled the proposal.