Unbeknownst to most Richmonders, Grace Arents, Richmond philanthropist, provided leadership in launching Richmond’s Church of the Holy Comforter. Organized in 1902, Arents proceeded methodically, undeterred, almost undetected.
Richmond biographical aficionados have academically chased the fortresslike “quietly determined” Grace Arents over decades. Truth is, Ms Arents didn’t care much for public relations, celebrity, or exposure; she simply worked to improve her community. Arents life (1848 – 1926) was particularly directed to the lives of the Oregon Hill community where many needy lived.
Her charitable efforts included: subsidizing the city’s first public housing and visiting nurse system; helping establish the William Byrd Community House; founding the Grace Arent’s School – then Open High School; and her utter spiritual affair in 1877 with St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – she donated an organ in memory of her mother.
All this is solidly documented including recent works: Kerri Culhane’s, “The Fifth Avenue of Richmond, a Study of the 800 and 900 Blocks, West Franklin Street; Harry Kollatz piece in Richmond Magazine, 2009, “The Invisible Philanthropists: Grace Arents, a Shy Heiress” – both essential to understanding lady Arents – urban reformer, niece to Major Lewis Ginter.
So, what about Richmond’s Church of the Holy Comforter – its relationship with Grace Arents?
By January, 1901, Arents role in St. Andrew’s finances gravitated to constructing a new, beautiful St. Andrew’s stone structure, completed in two years. This turn-of-the-century Gothic Revival church enjoys inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places today. But what about the 1877 original Episcopal Church – a Gothic, wood-frame structure, long consecrated? The original Andrew’s church structure can be viewed on their current web page.
Our progressive philanthropist immediately purchased property at Grove Avenue and Roland Street (which was then in the extreme suburban west end section) – known as the 2100 block. Hiring construction movers to carefully transport the original Gothic wood-frame church, intact, from the Andrew’s location, was her next step. As the new, magnificent stone structure soared to completion, the original wood-frame church, with seating capacity over 200 and Sunday school rooms in the rear, was en route to Grove Ave.
The newly transferred Grove Ave church held services on the last Sunday in October, 1902. First organized as a St. Andrew’s mission, the Episcopal parish became the Church of the Holy Comforter – first diocesan church to honor the Holy Spirit. By May 21, 1903, the parish organization was an independent congregation; the recently moved structure was consecrated by the late Bishop Robert A. Gibson on June 1, 1903. With two spaced fir trees planted, the church location, chosen by Grace Arents, became part of a growing Richmond’s “west end”; intoxicatingly, the congregation grew rapidly. One original fir tree still survives there today in front of the 2100 condominiums.
Quickly grabbing the attention of the Diocesan Missionary Society, Richmond’s population began a west end shift in post-World War II. This development dictated an organized Episcopal church be placed between St. Marks, on the Boulevard, and St. Stephens Church on Grove Ave. In 1947 Holy Comforter’s congregation voted to purchase lots in the 4800 block of Monument Ave for the construction of the present church and parish house.
The last service celebrated at the original Arents church location was on August 20, 1950. The shift to west end Richmond was presided over by the Rev. Frank Pulley, and the Rector Emeritus, Rev. Dr. R. Cary Montague, City Missionary for the City of Richmond.
With all of her accomplishments, Grace Arents died in 1926 – not before planting spiritual seeds reaching out to an unknown, undeveloped Richmond west end.
Raymond B. Wallace, Jr., retired teacher at Godwin High School in Henrico County, currently serves as VRS Trustee. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.