In 1865, nine-month-old Mary Mitchell Allen of Tuckahoe Plantation died, and in an effort to aid those in their local community, her parents, Richard and Virginia Allen, decided to raise funds to build a church in her memory. The Wickham family of nearby Woodside Plantation agreed to contribute three acres of land on which to build the new parish. The building was designed by architect Marion Dimmock, cost $1500 to construct, and was finished in 1878. St. Mary’s first service was led by Rev. A.B. Trizzard of Chesterfield Trinity Church on September 9, 1877, before the building was even fully constructed. The building was consecrated on April 20, 1878 by Bishop Francis Whittle. Throughout its earliest years, St. Mary’s hosted visiting clergy and other lay leaders for services once per month, and focused its energy on serving the impoverished local coal mining and farming communities. The bell from the steam engine that hauled coal from the nearby mines rings for worship in Little St. Mary’s even today.
St. Mary’s Churchyard is home to 100 original gravestones poured by Frank Alley, buried here, and numbered by his daughter Ida. The numbered graves represent the burial places of the first congregants here and their families—members of the local coal mining and farming community.
In 1927, Rev. Giles Palmer of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church took on St. Mary’s as a mission church. Dr. Palmer held weekly afternoon services at St. Mary’s in order to accommodate its schedule along with St. Stephen’s morning worship. Under his supervision, the Parish Hall (now the Parish Office) was constructed in 1932 using funds raised from Richmond businessmen. The Parish Hall was used as a library, recreation center, dance hall, and more. Palmer also encouraged Easter egg hunts, Christmas parties, baptisms, picnics, youth activities, and more. He resigned in 1942 to focus on the quickly growing parish life of St. Stephen’s.
Because of changes brought on by World War II, St. Mary’s experienced pastoral instability with sporadic lay leadership for five years until Rev. Stanley Ashton became part-time minister. In the years that Stanley Ashton served as St. Mary’s priest, the church went from mission to parish status. In 1954, the church was insulated, three new Sunday School rooms were built, and a well was drilled.
The Rev. Holt Souder was called to be St. Mary’s first full-time Rector in 1962, when St. Mary’s membership totaled 100. Holt and his wife Isabel grew St. Mary’s programming for all ages, and encouraged fellowship among parishioners by hosting weekly Sunday lunches. With the growing congregation came new youth, and Holt hired John Miller as Youth Minister in 1977. John was later ordained deacon and priest, and served as Holt’s Assistant Rector. By the time Holt retired and John took over as Rector, the congregation had grown to 560 members.
In the years to come, conversations began about ways to enlarge the original church to accommodate the growing congregation. In an effort to preserve the historical integrity of “Little St. Mary’s,” a strategic plan was drawn up to include the building of “New St. Mary’s”—a larger sanctuary situated behind the original church. Two architects specializing in country gothic buildings—Clovis and Maryann Heimsath—traveled from Texas to design the new building. New St. Mary’s was completed in 1992.
When Miller retired in 2015, St. Mary’s had grown and changed significantly. Thanks to its strong history and solid foundation built by early leaders and parishioners, St. Mary’s today has continued to grow. Membership is at an all-time high and in addition to two worship services each Sunday, St. Mary’s holds regular programming for children, youth, and adults. Continuing its history of mission work, St. Mary’s contributes over $50,000 to local outreach partners each year.