Jay Cooke, who had grown up in a radically abolitionist family known to be active in the Underground Railroad in Ohio, and who had moved to a house nearby with his family, designed and funded the original construction of St. Paul’s Elkins Park, which was completed in 1861. It is now the oldest surviving purpose-built house of worship in Cheltenham.
Jay Cooke was one of America's first great financiers, and was a technology leader who established the first investment bank that had all its branches and headquarters interconnected by telegraph – the internet of his day. At the start of the Civil War, the United States Secretary of the Treasury asked Jay Cooke to sell bonds that Congress had authorized to finance the Union Army, but which the government had been unable to sell. He designed innovative newspaper advertising to sell the bonds all over the Union States, and was spectacularly successful; it is estimated by economists that over three and 1/3 Trillion dollars of Civil War bonds in 2014 equivalent prices passed over his desk, which now stands in the church. Jay Cooke became known as "the Financial Savior of the Union."
The Quaker Lucretia Mott - abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and social reformer, moved to the Chelten Hills from Philadelphia at the same time as did Jay Cooke, and they became neighbors and close friends. Jay Cooke was a devout Episcopalian, and was strongly influenced by Lucretia Mott's understanding of the "Inner Light" of religious experience. In turn, it is said that Lucretia Mott attended Jay Cooke's Bible study classes.
The Mott Family donated the land for Camp William Penn, the nearby, largest training ground for "Troops of Color" during the Civil War. St. Paul’s provided the only regular religious services at the camp throughout the Civil War, and it is said that the women of our church cared for sick soldiers there. The church continued Freedman's work in the early Reconstruction era, and Jay Cooke favored the Radical Republican, Salmon P. Chase, over Ulysses S. Grant, for President. Though there exists no documentation, church oral tradition has it that Jay and Lucretia had worked together on the Underground Railroad network which hid escaped slaves on their way to freedom on York Road, which led to New York. William Still, known as the Father of the Underground Railroad, became the provisioner of Camp William Penn and Harriet Tubman was known to travel the Old York Road as a "Captain" of the Underground Railroad. She sometimes stayed and rested at Lucretia Mott's house.
Jay Cooke became so wealthy that he provided a house for, and hired a fulltime priest just to give away his money. After the Civil War, it is said that he funded the construction and reconstruction of over a thousand churches in both the North and South. He was a major benefactor of the Philadelphia Episcopal Hospital and School of Divinity. He became President of an evangelical organization that defied the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church, and independently arranged the ordination of the first African American bishop, the Rt. Rev James Theodore Augustus Holly, Episcopal Bishop of Hispaniola.
Jay Cooke eventually donated his mansion to a progressive women's college, the Ogontz School for Girls. The school moved, and eventually became the Abington Campus of Penn State University. In the school’s final year at Ogontz, student Amelia Earhart attended Sunday worship at St. Paul's, the second person and first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic – an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and an inspiration to women everywhere.
During the Gilded Age, St. Paul’s was home to many of Philadelphia’s wealthiest, including the Widener family, one of the richest families in American history. Their friends, the Art Nouveau artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, and the noted architect Horace Trumbauer, expanded and graced the church with thirteen spectacular stained-glass windows. It is documented that Julian Abele, the first African American architecture graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (and Horace Trumbauer's Chief Designer), actually did much of the expansion design work.
The Widener family, preparing for their daughter’s wedding, returned from Europe in 1912 and held a glittering party aboard ship with the captain present; the very hour on its maiden voyage that the RMS Titanic was struck by an iceberg. Our church vestry member George D. Widener (who was also a Director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) and his son Harry were lost at sea; and in memory of George Widener, Tiffany designed a window at St. Paul's, showing Christ with a shepherd’s staff in front of an iceberg with the Northern Lights behind, and another window in memory of son Harry Widener.
In 1925, an AM radio station, WIBG (standing for “Why I Believe in God”) was started in the basement of St. Paul's by church member Dr. Theodore Elsner. Eventually sold, WIBG AM RADIO 99 went on to become THE premier Top40 radio station in the Delaware Valley throughout the Civil Rights Era (1950s to mid-60s). It was THE place on the transistor radio dial where white baby boomers first heard black rhythm and blues music, and where black teenagers first heard white rock and pop music. St. Paul’s Sunday services were broadcast on WIBG AM 99 until well into the late 1960s. Dr. Theodore Elsner went on to become the first radio and television advisor of Billy Graham.