Tour Beautiful Religious Sites of the U.S. Virgin Islands
Known as an island for partiers and beachgoers, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ St. Thomas is also home to several churches and a synagogue, providing a glimpse into the island’s rich history and culture. Before the Virgin Islands became part of the United States, they were previously part of the Danish West Indies.
“The Virgin Islands community is small, historically even smaller,” said Felipe Ayala Jr., chair of the St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Commission. “For seven major religions to co-exist shows Denmark's religious tolerance and the tolerance of the community. Many of these religions shared the same sanctuary buildings while their respective sanctuary buildings were being built.”
Below are details about these historic places of worship.
Frederick Lutheran Church
Noted for its welcome-arms staircase to embrace visitors walking into the building, it is made entirely out of yellow ballast brick, Ayala Jr. says. The original site was across the street from Fort Christian. The corner stone for the original church was laid by Pastor Frick on February 1, 1753. That church was destroyed by a hurricane in 1772 and was not rebuilt.
“Services moved back into the fort’s chapel until the new Cathedral was built. There is a small chapel in the fort. It was reopened and rededicated as part of the Fort Christian reopening,” says Ayala, Jr.
St. Thomas Synagogue
The migration of Jewish people to the Danish West Indies dates back to the middle of the 17th century. Some of them were refugees from St. Eustatius after Admiral Rodney expelled them due to their involvement in the arms trade during the American Revolution.
The first synagogue opened in 1796 but was destroyed by a fire less than a decade later. A second place of worship was built in 1812 but again replaced. The present building, finished in 1833, has floors made of sand “to muffle the sound of worship,” Ayala Jr. explains.
It is the second-oldest synagogue in the United States and the longest in continuous use, according to the National Park Service nomination form. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
St. Thomas Reformed Church
Dutch traders organized the church around 1660. It’s been rebuilt several times in various locations due to fires. It was originally called the Dutch Reformed Church because services were held for the Dutch-speaking residents of the town.
“It is a fine example of Classical Revival architecture,” Ayala Jr. says. Mausoleum plaques of some of the pastors hang inside.
Christ Church Methodist
The youngest of the island’s churches, it was restored about 10 years ago and has new pews. Built in 1910, it was consecrated by Gov. Helweg Larsen on Christmas Day in 1912.
“The Methodists were a late-comer to the religious scene on the island. It is the baby of the seven historic churches,” Ayala Jr. says. The Methodists’ history on the island started in 1891 when the first Methodist minister arrived. Before that, he says, services were held in the Dutch Reformed Church.
Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul
An opulent site, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul was recently restored after an extensive renovation that included a new entrance and a color change. For the last 100 years, it was a pale washed sand color. The church is now yellow with green shutters and white trim, which are historic colors to the island and time period, Ayala Jr. says.
The colors “make it pop,” he adds.
It was built in 1844. The previous cathedrals were damaged by fire and hurricanes.
Memorial Moravian Church
Made out of rubble masonry, the Memorial Moravian Church was established in 1884. The church is a grand Baroque Revival-style, a departure from the typical simplistic nature of other Moravian churches. It includes the original pews, pipe organ, and bell on the exterior steps.
All Saints Anglican Church
The All Saints Anglican Church was built in 1848—the same year enslaved people were emancipated in the Danish West Indies. Ayala says former slaves built the cathedral under the guidance of master builder George Tucker.
“It is one of 16 native blue bitch stone and yellow ballast brick-trimmed buildings. It gave rise to the other 15 buildings,” he says.
Blue bitch stone is an indigenous stone that has a slate blue color, according to Ayala: “The stone was usually quarried on the site.”
Blue bitch stone replaced rubble masonry because people didn’t have to plaster the stone. “Blue bitch is much harder and stronger,” he adds.
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