Oakland Farm in Sarah Gibbs day

Sarah Gibbs was the force behind the founding of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth. She was born in 1784 in Newport. Her father, George Gibbs was a grain merchant.   His firm of Gibbs and Channing owned up to seventy-five vessels sailing from Newport. In 1787, he married Mary Channing of Newport, the sister of his partner, Walter Channing.  Among their children were Sarah Gibbs and Ruth Gibbs Channing.  Ruth would marry famed Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing.  Sarah Gibbs was a devout Episcopalian and would never go to hear William Ellery Channing speak, but that did not prevent her from opening her home (Oakland Farm)  in hospitality to him every summer.  The house was always filled with guests.  Channing brought not only his wife and children, but also governesses for his daughters.  Famed social reformer Dorothea Dix came with the family as a governess and she had a close relationship with Sarah.  Dorothea started her mental health efforts while here in Portsmouth.  She even started the Sunday School for the Christian Union Church across the street at Mrs. Durfee’s Tea House.  Dorothea continued to come to Portsmouth even after the death of Rev. Channing.

Channing found Oakland Farm was a retreat that refreshed him.  He would get up early and spend time out in Portsmouth’s nature before breakfast.  He enjoyed the gardens.  He wrote about Oakland Farm to a friend:  “Here I spend four or five months annually, enjoying my tranquillity almost too much; almost reproaching myself for being so happy, when I am doing so little for the happiness of others.”

About the founding of St. Mary’s  Church

In 1843 Sarah Gibbs wanted to bring the Episcopal Church closer to her home.  She invited Rev. Hobart Williams to Portsmouth to begin a church.  The first service was December 17th, 1843 in temporary quarters.  In 1844 Sarah donated 88 acres known as “Potter Farm” as a site for a seminary and church.  The cornerstone was laid Sept. 2, 1847.  Architect Richard Upjohn was chosen to design the church.  On May 20, 1852 the building was consecrated.  Bishop Henshaw wrote:  “I consecrated St. Mary’s Church, Portsmouth, a gift of faith and love from a pious and magnificent churchwoman, Miss S. Gibbs, costing about $11,000.”  Sarah lived to see a vibrant church community at St. Mary’s, but the seminary never developed.   Sarah died in 1866 and is buried by the church she founded.

St. Mary

Vintage image of St. Mary’s Church