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Aquia Episcopal Church

Though it was conceived in the fires of controversy and political influence, Aquia has been lovingly protected by generations of Staffordians and remains unequaled in Colonial architectural design.

In 1664, Stafford was divided from Westmoreland County and included all that land above upper Machotic Creek (now King George County). The new county of Stafford was divided into two parishes, initially referred to simply as the "upper" and "lower" parishes. These eventually assumed the names of Overwharton and Chotank.

The unusual name "Overwharton" is thought to have originated with an early settler, Col. Henry Meese, who named his plantation after his native parish, Over Worton, in North Oxfordshire, England. This plantation, presently in King George County, is now known as Waugh Point.

The first major church within the present bounds of Stafford was Potomac Church, located a few miles southeast of the present Stafford Courthouse. Constructed in the 1660s, Potomac was one of the largest churches in Colonial Virginia, measuring 60 by 80 feet. Arched windows allowed light into the building and, like later Aquia Church, the texts of the Law, Lord's Prayer, and Creed were painted above the altar (despite the fact that most people were unable to read).

Potomac Church was in regular use from the time of its erection until it was abandoned around 1804. During the War of 1812, marauding British soldiers caused considerable damage to this venerable old building, but it remained standing until being completely dismantled by Federal troops who used the brick and stone to construct a railroad bridge across nearby Potomac Creek.

In 1667, it was ordered that three churches be built in the new county of Stafford, one "at the southwest side of Aquia." This was the first of three known churches to be built on the present site of Aquia Church. Around 1700, this early structure burned and was replaced with a small wooden chapel.

The Colonial parish was a civil as well as an ecclesiastical jurisdiction that impacted the lives of every county resident. The parish vestry assumed certain governmental duties, such as the presentation of moral misdemeanors; the administration of relief to the indigent, aged and incapacitated; the education and apprenticing of orphans; as well as the maintenance of the churches and grounds; the hiring of rectors; and the management of the church-owned glebes.

After the Revolution, these social functions were, by necessity, assumed by the county governments and resulted in the restructuring of these bodies to enable them to perform these vital functions.

At the time the present Aquia Church was built, in 1751, the records indicate that the parish contained about 1,000 communicants. As a taxing authority, the vestry of Overwharton had the power to impose levies to pay for a new church. As not all of the communicants were taxpayers, the financial burden imposed on those who did pay taxes was substantial.

To put the matter into the perspective of an average Stafford County resident of the period, consider the fact that the manor pew alone in Aquia was larger than the average yeoman's house.

The vestry's exact reasons for insisting upon the building of a new church are unclear. What is evident is that the age-old issue of political influence was firmly in place as local residents battled hopelessly against a huge public expenditure that was, in their eyes, needless.

These residents took their complaints to the House of Burgesses in and tried first, in 1745, to block the construction of the new church. Referred to in their petitions as "sundry Inhabitants," they chose as their representative Lawrence Washington, half-brother of the future president. Washington's plea to stop the bidding process was rejected.

The residents then sent repeated requests to have the vestry of Overwharton removed. They did not succeed in doing so until 1769, well after the new church had been completed.

From the perspective of "sundry Inhabitants," the construction of such a large church seemed an unnecessary waste of their hard-earned money. By the time the building of Aquia was being seriously considered, residents in the northern end of the county did not have to travel the extra miles to Potomac Church if they found the way difficult. Dettingen Church on Quantico Creek was much closer. Residents in the northwestern portion of Stafford were already attending Elk Run Church in Fauquier County or coming to the little wooden Aquia Church.

Determined to build their new church, the vestry placed a notice in The Virginia Gazette of June 6, 1751, asking for contractors to submit their plans and bids. Mourning Richards of King and Queen County was given the job of building the new brick church on the hill. The vestry agreed to pay him 110,900 pounds of tobacco for his efforts.

By early 1755, Aquia was nearly finished. However, on March 17, 1755--just a few days from being turned over to the vestry--Aquia burned. Workers, finished with the day's work, accidentally left a fire smoldering too near a pile of shavings. The resulting fire destroyed the interior of the church, consumed the roof, and spread to the little wooden church still standing on the south side of the new structure.

Mourning Richards was forced to rebuild, largely at his own expense, and was ruined financially. The House of Burgesses ordered the vestry to levy another tax upon the residents to help cover some of the expenses.

The completed Aquia Church was turned over to the vestry in 1757. Still opposed to the new church, "sundry Inhabitants" filed one last petition, on Sept. 20, 1758, "complaining of divers oppressive and illegal Proceedings in the Vestry of the said Parish, and praying that the same may be dissolved."

The Assembly delayed considering the petition until its February session and rejected it on March 17, 1759. The vestry prevailed and "sundry Inhabitants" paid for Aquia Church. Once completed, Aquia replaced Potomac as the official parish church, though the latter continued in use for many years.

The magnificent church that Mourning Richards finally turned over to the vestry in 1757 is in the form of a Greek cross with a hipped roof and an unusual tower on the west face. It is similar in design to St. Paul's (now in King George County). Both are in a true Greek cross design, making them unique among Virginia's extant Colonial churches.

Aquia's interior is brightened by two tiers of windows through which streams of sunlight filtered by ancient oaks, walnuts, cedars and hollies. The brickwork is in the Flemish-bond style with random glazed headers. The walls, 24 inches thick, are constructed of two courses of bricks with a gap between. This gap was filled with broken bricks and other construction rubble.

In the 1980s, "The Fleury's," a small 18th-century house, was moved from its original location south of the church to what is now Aquia Towne Center. It now serves as the church office. While digging the foundation for this building, workers revealed the remains of the old brick kiln from which the bricks for Aquia had been fired.

The exterior corner quoins, window keystones, and the three elaborate doorways are accented with sandstone from the nearby Aquia Creek sandstone quarries. The master stone mason and carpenter at Aquia, William Copein, also worked at Pohick Church in Fairfax County. In style and ornamentation, Pohick is quite similar to Aquia.

Linked toAquia Church, Overwharton Parish, Stafford County, Virginia

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