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Where We Worship: St. Peter's Episcopal Church

Festival of Lessons and Carols, an Advent tradition at St. Peter's Church.
Festival of Lessons and Carols, an Advent tradition at St. Peter's Church.Read moreCourtesy of St. Peter's

Parishoners from Society Hill's St Peter's Episcopal Church attached a chalkboard this spring to their building's brick wall near 4th and Pine Streets. Passers-by were invited to finish the statement "Today I pray for …"

Within hours, the board was covered in responses in blue, pink, white, orange and yellow chalks. Each day, the board was wiped clean in the morning and it would be covered again by night.

My marriage. Peace. Our youth. Respect for all people. Happiness.

"The response was amazing," recalled Claire Nevin-Field, who became the church's rector in August. "There's hunger and a need in the community to name our hopes, our dreams, the things we're thankful for and the places that we hurt and where we need healing."

St. Peter's wants to be part of that healing. "There's constant rechecking and asking, 'Is this working? What do we think God is calling us to do?' " Nevin-Field said. "We are looking to be creative, to be the hands, hearts and feet of Christ in this community at this place in this time."

The church will mark the beginning of Advent this Sunday with its "Festival of Lessons and Carols" service, starting at 4 p.m.

The annual event is a way to prepare for Christmas, beginning with a lesson on the story of creation and ending with the announcement of Christ's upcoming birth. The St. Peter's choir and congregation sing carols between each lesson, some well-known favorites and some lesser known gems.

Who we are: St. Peter's Church was founded in 1758 by parishioners from Old City's Christ Church. William White, the first presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the U.S., was rector of both facilities until the churches separated in 1832.

Nevin-Field, who joined St. Peter's as an associate in 2006, is the church's 21st rector and first female leader. A large painting of White hangs in her office.

While the early church leader may look staid and stiff in his portrait, he was "a wild man in his day. He was actually a rebel," she said. One of White's bold acts was ordaining the Episcopal Church's first African-American priest, Absalom Jones.

"In his day and age, that was a pretty big thing to do," she said. "I look at William White sometimes and I like to think he would be rather pleased to see a woman in this chair."

Where we worship: The entrance to St. Peter's Church is on the south side of the 300 block of Pine Street. Church offices are across the street at 313 Pine St.

There are two Sunday services. The 45-minute 9 a.m. service is all spoken-word — no music — and uses gender-neutral language to refer to God. The hour-long 11 a.m. service is more traditional, with music.

The boxed set: St. Peter's has "box pews," which are individual cubes with benches on three sides accessed by a small corral-type door on the fourth side. The Penn family had a designated box here, but seating is now open.

The church's altar is opposite the pulpit and the seating allows for those in an individual box to change seats so they can always face the speaker. Nevin-Field joked the set-up allows for families to more easily control wandering children.

The squirmy set: Speaking of children, a sign outside St. Peter's — "Fussy Babies Welcome" — invites families to a separate 9 a.m. service held in the auditorium of neighboring St. Peter's School. (While the school was founded by the church, the two are no longer affiliated.)

The 30-minute gathering features more songs, more movement and a Bible story told using a felt board.

"I remember when my kids were little, Sunday morning was the least spiritual hour of my week. It was like sumo wrestling match in church, trying to keep your kid from being totally disruptive," Nevin-Field said. "The parents are more sensitive to it than other people around them. We want a place where parents can feel completely comfortable."

Different strokes for younger folks: The traditional communion wafer is replaced with bread made from a yeast-free Trappist Monk recipe that includes a hint of honey. The children love the bread and ask for more, Nevin-Field said.

In fact, the entire service is interactive. "The kids have a lot to say, like 'Well, that's not blood,' as we heard one Sunday," she said. "If someone decides in the middle of a service to strip down to their diaper, they strip down to their diaper. Hopefully, it's one of the kids."

Good works: The church's food cupboard has been in operation for about 20 years and regularly provides food to 200 families each week. St. Peter's is also developing an after-school program with a focus on homework help, art and music.

Big issues we're grappling with: Nevin-Field easily ticked off a list of major concerns: hunger, poverty, race and racism. She also said she felt the human relationship with the earth "is the great theological issue of our time."

Words of comfort: Nevin-Field often refers to passages from the Bible's Book of Isaiah that reads in part, "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you …"

"At our core, we are of God and God loves us," she said. "I think that's what so many people need to hear."