ST. GEORGE’S, Bermuda — It is not the most famous Christmas Eve midnight service. That occurs in another St. Peter’s. Still, the traditional Service of Lessons and Carols held in St. Peter’s Church here is uniquely evocative. In a winter ritual passed down through the centuries, dozens of candelabras are lighted, setting the interior’s warm, toffee-colored Bermuda cedar aglow.
St. Peter’s, which is reputed to be the oldest Anglican church in continual use outside the British Isles, marks its 400th anniversary this year and, coincidentally, it received a nice birthday present. In March, the candles were lighted for a special Service of Intituling, when a royal decree from Queen Elizabeth II redesignated St. Peter’s as “Their Majesties Chappell,” a status first bestowed in 1697 by King William III. Somehow, over the centuries, the designation was lost. But then St. Peter’s has undergone many changes since the crew from the shipwrecked Sea Venture held the island’s first Christmas Eve service in a rudimentary church near the site in 1609.
St. Peter’s is situated in the quaint town of St. George’s, at the eastern end of Bermuda, where narrow lanes are lined with white, pink, and yellow stucco cottages framed by mature gardens bursting with colorful blooms. In 1612, the first permanent settlers built St. Peter’s from rough-hewn cedar and palmetto leaves, but it soon fell to one of the island’s countless storms. It was rebuilt but severely battered again in 1712. It reopened in 1713 built of stone and added the tower and wings in the early 1800s. In 1870, however, the church was nearly lost to development. One St. George’s landmark is the Unfinished Church, which looks like a ruin, but was the beginnings of St. Peter’s replacement.
Fortunately, a lack of funds meant it was never completed, leaving St. Peter’s to stand as testament to Bermuda’s history: The island’s first government assembly was held in the church in 1620, making it the world’s third oldest parliament. Artifacts include the original 500-year-old font — a typical Norman- style stone article brought by the first settlers — and a small chalice dated 1625, which bears the seal of the English commercial venture, the Bermuda Company. The original Communion table, which was built around 1615, survived the many renovations and is reputed to be the island’s oldest piece of furniture. On a sobering note, St. Peter’s cramped “Negro gallery” contrasts sharply with the private boxed pews, rented, as was customary, by wealthy families and dignitaries.
Then there is the “royal silver,” the 1697 Communion set of two flagons, a chalice, a paten, and an alms basin, all bearing the royal coat of arms, and for which St. Peter’s first gained its royal designation. But William III and Queen Mary never used them; they never visited Bermuda.
A 2-hour flight from Boston over the North Atlantic, Bermuda, or the Bermuda Isles to give it its proper name, remains a British Overseas Territory. A portrait of a young Elizabeth II still hangs in the church and in November, at a special anniversary service, the Rev. David Raths of St. Peter’s was joined by the Bishop of London, the Right Reverend and Right Honorable Richard Chartres, who brought a message from the queen in celebration of the church’s notable age.
St. Peter’s 33 Duke of York St., St. George’s, Bermuda. 441-297-2459. Daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Free, donations encouraged.