Beloved Invader Reenactment
Christ Church Rector Tom Purdy and his wife, Donna, recreate the roles of Rev. Anson Dodge and Anna Gould Dodge.
The Christ Church Tour of Homes is a traditional springtime celebration that has taken place for more than half a century. Coordinated by the Episcopal Church Women, the annual tour is the major fundraising drive of the Church for the year and benefits local charities that support women and children in need. You have read stories about the women who organize the tour, the village of volunteers it takes to put on the tour, details about the spectacular homes that have graced the tour over all these years, and learned about the non-profit organizations in the area that benefit from the proceeds of the tour; it is truly a labor of love. There is, however, another love story at the very heart of the tour that is often overlooked. It is the love story that Christ Church itself was built upon—the legacy of Anson Dodge.
In the late 1800’s, Norman Dodge, of the prestigious New York Dodge family, built a lumber mill on St. Simons Island and bought a plantation house on the Frederica River. His son, Anson Green Phelps Dodge, came to the island from New York to run the mill. Anson, Jr. visited his father on St. Simons Island, and in his leisure time discovered the ruins of an Episcopal church founded in 1808, following decades of worship under John and Charles Wesley and others. The church had been built in 1820, near the site of the oak tree under which the Wesley brothers preached, but was virtually destroyed by Yankee occupation during the Civil War in 1862. According to church history, families so loved the church that they dismantled the structure and saved what they could from the building, including pews and alter pieces. Dodge would imagine the church rebuilt, with its pews full, and hymns once again filling the air.
Anson, Jr. fell in love with his first cousin, Ellen Ada Phelps Dodge, and despite some misgivings by the family, married her in 1880 when he was 20 years-old. In the tradition of the wealthy, they traveled around the world on their honeymoon—a trip that would take more than 3 years, but ended in tragedy. Ellen ate contaminated fruit while in India and died of cholera. Anson, Jr. promised her on her deathbed that he would never leave her side. He had her body embalmed, placed in a metal coffin, then in an ebony casket and returned with her to St. Simons Island. Upon his return, Dodge dedicated his life to Christ, becoming an Episcopal priest, and rebuilt the church on the island as a memorial to his deceased wife. The church was built in the form of an inverted ship’s hull to denote a “ship of faith,” and when it was completed in 1884, Ellen’s casket was stored in a lead vault under the altar where Dodge preached so that he could keep his promise to never leave her side.
Dodge did eventually marry again, to Anna Gould, and had a son, Anson III. However, tragedy struck once again and a horse and carriage accident claimed the life of the boy when he was only 3. Dodge turned his grief into service by beginning and financing the Anson Phelps Dodge Home for Boys, a St. Simons based orphanage that operated until 1956, and creating a foundation to preserve and protect his church. He also funded and built four other churches on the island (including Lovely Lane Chapel and St. Ignatius), established the Georgia Mission Society and founded the first Episcopal Cathedral in India. When Dodge died unexpectedly at the early age of 38, in accordance with the provisions of his will, Ellen’s remains were removed from the vault in the church and buried in the grave with him, still keeping his promise to be by her side.
Seeing the grave site of Anson, Jr., his wives, and his son in the Christ Church Cemetery inspired author Eugenia Price to delve into the history of the people of this island with which she had become enchanted. The Christ Church archives include a book of collected poems and letters by Ellen Dodge, as well as photos and other letters, writings, from Anna, Anson, and other family members, allowing for an intimate look at the Dodges. With her novel Beloved Invader, Price created a new genre of historical fiction based in fact that spun the tale of this family, and through a trilogy, other families on the island, including Anna Gould’s ancestor, James Gould, the builder of the St. Simons Island lighthouse. The story of Anson Dodge, Jr.’s love for his first wife, Ellen, was memorialized not only in the building that stands on the north end of the island, but in print for all to read, and it lives on today through the continuing works of Dodge’s philanthropy and the church itself.
This year as a special feature of the Tour of Homes, there will be a tour of the cemetery and parishioners will take on the roles of some of the cemetery’s more prominent inhabitants and notable island personalities, including Rector Tom Purdy as Rev. Anson Dodge, Jr. Tour guests will have the rare opportunity to see these historic figures and their stories come to life. Buy your tickets today and continue Dodge’s legacy of love!
*** TOUR DETAILS***
The 61st Christ Church Tour of Homes presented by the Episcopal Church Women takes place on Saturday, March 15 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and includes stops at beautiful private homes on St. Simons Island and Sea Island, as well as historic locations. The cemetery tour and historical reenactment will be staged from 10:00 a.m. to noon. Tour headquarters will be at the Parish House adjacent to Christ Church, Frederica where visitors will enjoy beautiful music and light refreshments. Cookbooks will also be for sale. Gascoigne Park is the site to take the buses to tour the Sea Island homes.
Tickets are available at Maggie's Boutique, Pat's Hallmark in the Glynn Place Mall in Brunswick, Frederica Academy, H & H, St. Simons Drugs, and Christ Church. For more information, visit christchurchtourofhomes.org, call 638-8683, and follow on Facebook, and Instagram.