St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church (SPBTS) was the first religious congregation established on the coastal area east of Jacksonville—now known as “the Beaches”—bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Johns River, the Intracoastal Waterway, and Ponte Vedra Beach.
In 1885, a railway line from south Jacksonville to what became “Pablo Beach” (later Jacksonville Beach) began the transformation of this long, uninhabited stretch of seashore into five separate communities.
One of the first developments was the construction of an elegant hotel, The Murray Hall, by wealthy Jacksonville businessman, J. R. Christopher, for whom the present parish offices are named. Christopher, a congregant at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, arranged Sunday afternoon services in the parlor of his hotel for visitors during the summer of 1886.
In 1887, gifts of land from the railroad and contributions from Mr. and Mrs. Christopher and other summer visitors resulted in a small “carpenter gothic” chapel, erected at Second Street and Second Avenue South just east of the present-day San Pablo Towers retirement complex. On August 14, 1887, the Rt. Rev. Edwin Weed, the third bishop of the Diocese of Florida, held the service of dedication.
SPBTS was a mission church served by various supply priests until 1937. Year-round services began in 1925 due to the efforts of permanent residents, including the W. H. Stormes family.
In 1937, the Rev. Ben Meginnis became the first full-time rector of the mission, and in 1940, SPBTS became a parish. When Rev. Meginnis left to serve as an army chaplain in 1943, the Rt. Rev. Arthur Lea, a retired bishop, became the acting rector, and SPBTS acquired its first rectory on Tenth Street in Atlantic Beach.
In 1946, as the population of the Beaches continued to increase, the Rev. Edward H. Harrison was called as the rector. On March 11, 1951, the parish, having acquired a parcel of land west of Third Street in Jacksonville Beach at Fifth Street and Twelfth Avenue North, broke ground for a new parish hall. On the same day, groundbreaking ceremonies for a mission church, which was to become Christ Church Ponte Vedra, took place.
In 1952, the original SPBTS building was moved to this new site. Subsequently the cloisters located south of the new parish hall were built, and by 1956, the Stormes Hall complex was completed and the Parish Day School was begun with a kindergarten. In 1957 the school adopted a plan for a K through 6 educational institution which reached its fulfillment in 1967 and was renamed Beaches Episcopal School in 1994.
The Rev. Harrison Sr. left in 1954 and was succeeded by the Rev. Robert R. Parks. As the Beaches’ growth accelerated, plans were made for the construction of a new, much larger sanctuary. This vision was accomplished in 1967 under the leadership of the Rector, the Rev. Paul Ritch. The first service in this magnificent new building was on Easter Sunday, April 30. On January 25, 1972, at the festival of the conversion of St. Paul, the mortgage for the new building was paid off under the leadership of the Rector, the Rev. Neil Gray. Bishop Hamilton West officiated at the commemoration service.
Conscious of its role as both an historic place of worship and an important participant in the community life of the Beaches, SPBTS continues to support the vitality of the Beaches Episcopal School and (beginning in 1973) the Beaches Fine Arts Series, as well as a mission at Fleet Landing, a retirement center in Atlantic Beach. In 1988, the parish began a relationship with St. Paul’s, Cienfuegos, Cuba, and in 1993, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, a relationship with St. Andrews AME Church, Jacksonville Beach.