Christ Church: Memorial to a wife
By Tyler E. Bagwell
Christ Church, located on St. Simons Island, Georgia, has captivated residents and visitors for years with its distinctive architectural design and majestic live oak surroundings. This modern day spectacle, like a vintage photograph, offers the viewer a peek into another time period. Ultimately, the widespread appeal of the site today may be linked to the 1880s generosity of Anson Dodge Jr., a man popularized by Eugenia Price in her book The Beloved Invader.
Following the Civil War, Christ Church was in shambles. The Episcopal Church, originally built in 1820, had been damaged extensively by Union troops. A letter written by Fannie Butler after a funeral in 1866 and published in Caroline Lovell's book The Golden Isles of Georgia described the condition of the church. Butler remarks, "The steps of the church were broken down, so we had to walk up a plank to get in; the roof was fallen in so that the sun streamed down on our heads; while the seats were all cut up and marked with the names of the Northern soldiers who had been quartered there during the war. The graveyard was so overgrown with weeds and bushes... that we had difficulty in making our way through to the freshly dug grave."
In 1884 then twenty-four-year-old Anson Green Phelps Dodge Jr. financed the erection of the present day Christ Church to replace the dilapidated one. The rebuilding of the Church was in honor of his first wife Ellen, who died unexpectedly while in India on their honeymoon trip. Christ Church, designed in the shape of a cross, included from the original Church the Credence or Communion Table as well as salvaged pieces of the altar. Anson Dodge Jr. would attend seminary school and become the first rector or minister of the new Church. And, for a time his wife Ellen Dodge's remains were buried beneath the altar.
Throughout the 1880s Anson Dodge Jr. financed the construction of several Episcopal churches in the area for congregations of African-descent. Around 1885 he sponsored the erection of St. Athanasius, an Episcopal church located at the corner of Monck and Albany streets in Brunswick. In 1886 St. Ignatius Episcopal Church, situated on Demere Road, St. Simons Island, was built and by the late 1880s two more churches were established on St. Simons for members of the black community.
Anson Dodge Jr., grandson of two highly successful and wealthy business leaders from the Northeast, moved to Glynn County with his parents in the 1870s. His father Anson Dodge Sr., his uncle Norman Dodge, and a family associate Titus Meigs operated a profitable lumber company in the 1870s and 1880s on St. Simons Island. The Dodge family also owned large tracts of land throughout the southeast as well as timber property as far north as Canada. On St. Simons, the Dodge-Meigs lumber business was situated in the area where Epworth-By-The-Sea, a United Methodist Church Conference Center, is now located.
In the hey-day of coastal Georgia's lumber industry, timber was cut from inland forests and floated down to the shore via the Altamaha and Satilla Rivers. Then, the logs were transported by barge to the mills and processed into lumber. According to Margaret Davis Cate in her book Our Todays and Yesterdays: A Story of Brunswick and the Coastal Islands the Dodge-Meigs Company sawmill was "...said to have been at that time the third largest mill in the United States, capable of handling 125,000 feet of lumber a day." Sailing ships from around the world arrived on a regular basis to the docks of the Dodge-Meigs mill, loaded their holds with the wood cargo, and then carried the lumber back to Europe or other countries.
Anson Dodge Jr. eventually remarried in 1890 and spent several contented years with his second wife Anna Gould, granddaughter of James Gould who constructed the first lighthouse on St. Simons. Regrettably, the Dodges only child died in infancy. But, from that sad experience rose the Anson Phelps Dodge Home for Boys, a St. Simons based orphanage that operated until 1956.
Anson Dodge Jr. died unexpectedly in 1898 at 38 years of age. His body is buried in the cemetery of Christ Church along with those of his two wives, infant son, and mother. While Dodge's contributions to the community are at times forgotten, his legacy will live on through Christ Church, a monument built in tribute to his first wife.