This article was written by St. Peter’s historian and parishioner Libby Browne.
A remarkable discovery has been made in the last year which pertains to St. Peter’s. I was contacted last summer by an old school friend of mine, Phoebe Griswold. She and her husband, Frank, a Philadelphian and the former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA, are now members of St. Luke’s Church in Germantown. Phoebe serves on the
Vestry there, and over the course of several meetings in the Rectory, she started looking more and more curiously at a portrait that hung in a dusty corner behind the door. She recognized the subject as Bishop William White, one-time Rector of the United Churches of Christ Church and St. Peter’s, principal founder of the Episcopal Church, first Bishop of
Pennsylvania, and first and fourth Presiding Bishop (Frank Griswold was the 25th ).
Knowing of my interest in the history of St. Peter’s, she contacted me and asked who I might know who could help her identify the artist and, more broadly, help her determine what should be done with the painting. I put her in touch with free-lance art expert Carol Soltis, who had created an inventory of the paintings in 313 Pine Street in the 1990s (including our portrait of Bishop White). Carol inspected the St. Luke’s painting very carefully and determined that it was painted by Henry Inman in about 1830, when White was about 82 years old. Phoebe was, of course, thrilled, but mystified as to how it had gotten to St. Luke’s. This is a church that was founded in 1811 (50 years after St. Peter’s opened). In 1904, it started a mission to Germantown’s growing African-American population which, in time, became St. Barnabas Church; in 1968 the two parishes merged. She learned that one of the late 19th-century donors to the church was Thomas H. Montgomery, who was a great-grandson of Bishop White, through one of White’s daughters. There are two stained-glass windows in the church in her memory, so the possibility of the portrait being also given by him is very
strong, but Phoebe has not been able to find anything in the church records about such a gift. She has, however, been to visit descendants of Thomas Montgomery in New Hampshire who have all sorts of information about him.
While the provenance has yet to be proven, Carol Soltis, who is now a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Karie Diethorn, curator at Independence National Historical Park which manages the historic Bishop White House at 309 Walnut Street, have arranged to have the portrait researched and to undergo conservation at the Winterthur Museum near Wilmington. Thus, with the portrait identified, its work on provenance and conservation in progress at one of the top museums in the country, its future remains the question. Phoebe has some ideas of how this remarkable discovery should be made known to the whole Episcopal Church. Stay tuned for more news as the situation develops!