William Penn's "New Town" was established in 1684 as the hub of his "New Township", and was the Bucks County seat of government for eighty-eight years. As early as 1766, a parish of the Church of England was founded in Newtown, and by 1768 was reported to have begun building a brick church. However, this first parish effort was discontinued (probably during the War of Independence), and the presence of the Episcopal Church was not felt again in Newtown for over a half century. In 1832, a group of laity, under the leadership of Dr. Phineas Jenks, made financial commitments, and secured the assistance of St. James, Bristol, the new parish of "Saint Luke's Church in the County of Bucks" was established to the glory of God. A plot was purchased and a building started with $1,341 in subscriptions. St. Luke's was consecrated, and received into the Diocese in 1835, with the Rt. Rev'd Henry Onderdonk acting for the Rt. Rev'd William White. The Parish was incorporated in 1836. The first rector, the Rev'd G. W. Ridgely officiated also at St. Andrew's, Yardley; and other early rectors made visits to Grace, Hulmeville, and Trinity, Centreville (now Buckingham).
Through the decades, each generation of the faithful have made additions and renovation to our building to enhance their worship of Almighty God: a pipe organ was added in 1834, and replaced in 1905 and 1958, and renovated in 1995; a wooden bell tower was erected in 1876, and replaced by the present brick tower in 1904; a separate sacristy was added in 1929; the "east" wall was restyled in 1929-1933, including a beautiful copy of Andrea dellaRobbia's 1485 masterpiece "The Coronation of the Virgin" as a reredos.
In 1995, it was necessary to replace the flooring system and the pews. However, by using random-width floor boards and by installing custom-made pews patterned on the original pews from 1832, it was possible to retain the style and "feel" of the original interior. The box pews had doors to keep out drafts in the unheated church. Tin foot warmers filled with hot coals were often brought by the parishioners to ward off the cold. Pew were rented as a means of supporting the parish, and pews varied in rental value according to their location. (Note that some of the brass plaques from the original pew indicating the renters have been retained for historical purposes.) Pew rents were collected yearly and were due on January 1. This practice continued in this parish until 1955.
The ceiling and false beams are of hammered tin. The floor is sloped to improve visibility. The Altar was give in 1904 by a Boston parish in memory of their rector, who was a son of this parish. The mezzanine was added in 1834.
Three of the eight stained glass windows were made in 1983 at the Edward Bryne studio in Doylestown for the sesquicentennial of the church. Starting from the front left they are:
A pipe organ, the first in Newtown, was installed in 1834. It was built by the Hale Brothers in the house at the southeast corner of South State Street and Centre Avenue, now Jean-Pierre's Restaurant. The cost of $200 included installation and lessons for the organist. This original organ was replaced in 1905, from which the facade pipes remain. The present pipe organ was built and installed in 1958, and is still serviced by the builder, who in 1996 renovated it by upgrading its circuitry, and adding a MIDI synthesizer.
Our reredos over the altar, the beautiful Italian Renaissance sculpture, The Coronation of the Virgin, is a copy of the 1485 creation by Andrea Della Robbia. It was cast in heavy plaster for our centennial celebration in 1932 from a first generation cast owned by the Boston Museum. Although we obtained a perfect cast, when the mold forms were removed, the Museum copy was cracked beyond repair. The terra cotta original is in a convent chapel in Siena, Italy. Della Robbia is noted for the individual faces of his figures and especially for the use of cherubs. Our reredos is under the care of Mr. Behrooz Salimnijad, conservator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This magnificent sculpture shows the Blessed Virgin Mary being crowned as Queen of Heaven, supported by angels and surrounded by five saints. (Starting from the left is St. Girolamo, holding a stone, gazing upward; then in Franciscan habit, St. Anthony of Padua, holding a book mounted with a flame; to the right of the angel holding a scroll, St. Chiara is on her knees adoring; a young female probably St. Lucy with a martyr's palm; and to the right, St Francis holding the cross.) On top of the coronation scene there is an arched pediment featuring cherubs. Beneath the main scene are three panels showing the Annunciation on the left, the Nativity on the right, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the center.
During the Renaissance period, only the very wealthy could afford to commission marble and bronze artwork. The Della Robbia family produced works in terra cotta which were less expensive but not as durable. Luca Della Robbia perfected a colored glaze with which he covered his sculpted clay and fired to create a longer lasting beauty. Our copy lack the heraldry of the Italian family that commissioned the original. The Cloisters of the New York Metropolitan Museum in New York City owns a terra cotta reredos of similar theme, but which is smaller in size than the one over our altar.
Outside the sacristy door is the churchyard (graveyard or cemetery) The land for the churchyard was purchased in 1835. Directly outside the door is the fenced area containing the crypts of the families of the three founders of the parish: Dr. Phineas Jenks, James Worth, and William Paff. Directly south of the sacristy is the crypt of Sir Henry Thornton, a life-long member of St. Luke's who was in charge of all overseas transportation during World War I, and was knighted by George V of Great Britain. Thornton was later approached by a delegation of Russians to upgrade their rail system; however, he was unable to do so, perhaps due to poor health.
The Chambers family crypt, also enclosed by an iron fence, is against the property line. The Chambers family who made their fortune in Pennsylvania oil donated the former Community Center to Newtown.
Another family whose fortune was made in Pennsylvania oil was the Pickering family. They donated Pickering Field and Pickering Manor to the community. Russell Pickering donated money for the Manor because his wife was very ill and at that time there were no nursing facilities in the are. The Pickering family is also buried here.
The Barnsley family, many of whom are buried here, has recently donated the large rose granite cross in the Garden of Repose in the northeast corner of the churchyard. This Garden was opened in 1990 as a memorial to Violet Gert, and is a repository that can accommodate hundreds of urns of ashes.
St. Luke's parish is blessed with a strong, vital lay leadership whose faith is firmly placed in Jesus Christ as expressed through traditional Anglicanism. Parish membership is a wonderful cross-section of ages, income levels, interests and abilities. And, because in recent years growth has been steady, the Vestry and Rector have been studying the needs and changes of moving from a pastoral size to a program size parish, with special attention given to the needs of the congregation in worship, pastoral care and youth ministries.
The present rector is the Rev'd Ernest Curtin.