Devoted Steward and Benefactor of the Diocese of Virginia
At the 1923 meeting of the Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia, the Council formally expressed “its appreciation of the noble gift to the Diocese of the home of the late Peter H. Mayo at Franklin and Jefferson Streets, Richmond, by his daughters… and his grandchildren…,” noting “that the spirit which so characterized” Peter Mayo “in his zeal for the work of the Church” was reflected in his family’s gift. Since 1923, that Greek revival home has been known to generations as Mayo Memorial Church House, the “headquarters” of the Diocese of Virginia. But what of the man, Peter H. Mayo, whose lifelong “zeal for the work of the Church” was honored in death by his family with this gift?
To the secular world, Peter Helms Mayo (1836-1920) was a member of the important Mayo family of Richmond, whose progenitor, Major William Mayo, laid out the city in 1737. Having served as a captain in the quartermaster department of the Confederate States Army, Peter Mayo was confronted after the war with the challenge of rebuilding the wreckage of the family tobacco business. Reorganizing that enterprise as P.H. Mayo and Brother, Peter Mayo became one of the wealthiest and most successful businessmen of postwar Richmond, making a vast fortune through tobacco, as well as real estate transactions.
Peter Mayo’s religious life, however, was equally compelling. Born into an Episcopal Church family, his faith was nurtured at the Monumental Church, Richmond, where he was confirmed by the Rt. Rev. John Johns, Bishop of Virginia, on April 21, 1867. He would serve on that church’s vestry from 1868 to 1884, when he withdrew with three other vestry members to found a daughter church farther west in the city at Madison and Grace streets — the original location of All Saints’ Church, Richmond. At All Saints’, he served on the vestry and as senior warden from its organization until his death in 1920, dedicating himself to all aspects of parish life and development.
Peter Mayo’s commitment to The Episcopal Church, however, extended far beyond the parish boundaries. He devoted his financial and organizational acumen to the affairs of the Church, as trustee, and as secretary and/or treasurer of the three diocesan funds — the Fund for Disabled Clergy, the Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund, and the Brotherhood (a kind of insurance organization). These funds were critical to the underpaid Virginia clergy in the days before the Church Pension Fund, disability insurance and Social Security. As a regular member of the diocesan Council, first from Monumental, and then from All Saints’, he devoted years to the diocesan Finance Committee, wrestling with the challenge of finding resources for the needs of the Diocese. Finally, the diocesan Council elected him a lay deputy to represent the Diocese of Virginia at the General Conventions from 1904 to 1919.
In describing Peter Mayo in 1923, however, the Virginia Churchman focused not on these formal roles, but on Mayo’s informal actions at the home that was to become the diocesan headquarters.
And from this house also went out a most unusual and beautiful charity. Everybody who wanted help appealed to Mr. Mayo. The poor were constantly at his door. Mr. Mayo’s home was a veritable Mecca for the clergy. Nearly all in Virginia who wanted this or that, or the other object furthered in the parishes, sooner or later, in some way or another got the thing before Mr. Mayo. How many now can remember the gracious way in which they were received, the interest he took in their plans, the questions he asked about them, the suggestions he made concerning them, the hearty handshake and the encouraging good-bye and the generous cheque which accompanied it all. It cannot be an exaggeration to say that there is not a missionary parish in the Diocese of Virginia which has not been helped financially either directly or indirectly by Mr. Mayo, and because of this they owe something, at any rate, of their life and vitality to him.
Although Peter Mayo’s will included many bequests to Episcopal churches and institutions, his heirs concluded that donating the house he had acquired in 1884 to the Diocese of Virginia served as the appropriate memorialization of his Christian life, faith and values. Peter Helms Mayo was truly an Episcopal Church steward in life, and his family ensured that his legacy of stewardship and commitment to the Diocese of Virginia would continue for generations to come.
By: Julia Randle, Archivist, Diocese of Virginia