CHELMSFORD -- In Chelmsford Center, there are three churches that were built in the traditional architecture of a New England meeting house -- one Baptist, one Unitarian, one Congregational. A fourth stands out for its vastly different appearance: All Saints Episcopal Church on Billerica Road.
Touring All Saints, one easily feels transported to another place and time, particularly rural England centuries ago. The elaborate stonework, arched walkways and charming gardens that surround the chapel, sanctuary, offices and parish hall are a hidden treasure tucked just outside the busy intersection.
Some are well aware of its rustic, unique charm and medieval castle-like walls, however. According to priest in charge the Rev. Bill Bradbury, prom-goers and brides and grooms have been known to use the church grounds for photography, even if they have no association with the church.
Westford author David Brody even used the church for background on his independent film, "American Templars," based on his book, "Cabal of the Westford Knight," said Bradbury.
All of this is just fine with Bradbury, as it fits with the welcoming nature of the parish.
"We welcome everyone to our table, just as Jesus did in his earthly ministry. Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey of faith, come to the Holy Table," said Bradbury, who succeeded longtime priest in residence, the Rev. Thomas Barrington, in 2012.
Bradbury himself, an Atlanta native, was drawn to the church surroundings when he visited as potential priest in residence, after formerly serving as priest in residence in New Bedford since 2006.
"It looks very English, and we're part of the Anglican Church of England," said Bradbury. "I thought, this looks like a 1,000- year-old church in England. It just felt really good, a warm feeling.
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All Saints is "a great parish, a great fit, and it's been, all around, wonderful," said Bradbury, adding that he loves New England, but misses family, southern fried chicken, BBQ and early springs.
Bradbury's wife since 2010, the Rev. Stephanie Bradbury, is a priest in residence at St. John Episcopal Church in Beverly Farms. The couple lives in Boxford, so the Chelmsford location was a much better fit than New Bedford, he said.
During a tour on Wednesday, Bradbury pointed out the many unique aspects of the church and grounds, including the lovely Memorial Garden, inside of which the ashes of several former parishioners are buried.
Working in that garden on Wednesday, devotedly planting flowers in the rain, were Carol Douglas, a 47-year member of the church and the founder of the Memorial Garden, and Susan Gates, a 28-year member of the church.
"I love it here. This is like home to me," said Douglas, whose husband, Norm, volunteered his time to construct stone walls around the garden. "We have 16 people buried here, mostly parishioners."
Douglas added that "people are welcome to the garden any time. Many find peace here, and in about three weeks, the roses will be in bloom."
"We're very welcoming and open here, especially to people who don't know what they're looking for," said Gates. "They will be warmly welcomed by everybody."
Bradbury points out that the lay leadership at the very beginning of All Saints is reflected in the church culture today. That includes a strong and versatile music program, led by Maggie Marshall, and a vibrant religious education program, led by Laura Marshall, he said.
The church actually got its start not by a bishop or clergy, but by a determined woman who, in the 1850s, wrote to the Rev. Theodore Edson, then rector of St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Lowell, that there was an "enfeebled state of religion" in Chelmsford.
Anna Eliza Hunt asked him to come to Chelmsford to hold Episcopal services, while she also started a Sunday School for children. Her determination and lay leadership over 50 years ultimately resulted in a strong community of faith and the All Saints Chapel, which was begun in 1879.
In the 1950s a parish hall was added; a larger sanctuary was built in the 1960s. The backdrop of the altar in the new sanctuary is an impressive stone wall with a simple wooden cross in the middle. The stones were donated from the yards of parishioners, Bradbury said.
The original chapel, which seats about 50, is still in operation for some services, including small weddings and funerals. Touring the chapel, which has a pine cathedral ceiling, stained glass windows, original wooden floors and a rustic rood screen, it's easily clear why a couple would choose such an intimate, historic setting for a small wedding. One is scheduled for later this month.
The small chapel is also used for the 8 a.m. Sunday service, only in the summer, while the 9 a.m. summer service is held in the larger sanctuary. The rest of the year, services are held at 8 and 10 a.m. in the larger sanctuary.