St. John’s to mark 150 years; it was started by movers, shakers

jdodge@theolympian.comApril 10, 2014 

Church history is front and center this year at the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Olympia.

The congregation is celebrating its 150th anniversary, the first Episcopalian church to incorporate in the Washington Territory. It happened Jan. 7, 1864.

The church’s board of trustees reads like a who’s who of early Washington Territory movers and shakers, including board President William Pickering, the fifth territorial governor of Washington. The Illinois Republican was named to the job by a fellow Republican with ties to Illinois — President Abraham Lincoln. Pickering served the state from 1862 to 1866.

The church board treasurer was Sam W. Percival, the former sea captain and early Olympia pioneer and entrepreneur responsible for building a commercial steamship wharf known as Percival Dock.

The church board secretary was Richard Lane, quartermaster general of the territorial militia at a time when the militia consisted only of officers. He was in charge of the territorial arsenal.

While the parish officially formed in 1864, Episcopalians had been attending church services in Olympia since May 1853. That’s when the Rev. John D. McCarthy visited Olympia by canoe from Steilacoom for the first time.

Here’s what he had to say about the small village of about 100 inhabitants at the southern end of Puget Sound: “It is generally regarded as a place likely to become of great importance, and will probably be the capital of the Territory, at least for the present.”

McCarthy continued to conduct monthly services in an Olympia school or in the assembly hall of the House of Representatives until 1860. There was also a time in the 1870s when territorial Gov. Elijah Ferry conducted the church services. So much for the separation of church and state.

The year they incorporated, church officials also bought property for $500 on Capitol Way that later became the site of the Governor House. An old wooden carpenter shop on the lot was remodeled into a church. The congregation carpeted and cushioned their own pews.

Rev. Peter E. Hyland came from Portland in 1865 to minister the church. He took a faithful swim in Budd Inlet every day of the year, noted the Rev. Don Maddox, who started a Hispanic ministry at St. John’s in 2004. Hyland died in 1871 at the age of 80. At the back of the first church was a room used for Sunday school. The room sat on pilings until it fell into the bay during the 1872 earthquake.

St. John’s purchased property in 1878 at the corner of Washington Street and Ninth Avenue, built a parsonage and dedicated its new church at that site in 1891. When the Episcopalians moved to their third and current church on Capitol Way in the 1950s, the church on Washington Street became the First Baptist Church, a place of worship my family attended irregularly in the early 1960s.

Joining Maddox in research of the church’s history to celebrate the 150-year anniversary have been church members Linda Madison, Vicki Focke and Jenny Lowden. They’ve been aided in large part by the church’s own records, including a 55-page booklet completed in 1941 by the church’s the Rev. Thomas E. Jessett.

“It’s been a wonderful project, creating ties between the new people in the church with the older people,” Madison said.

Along with the Hispanic ministry started at the church 10 years ago, the church features a strong contingent of Cambodians and Vietnamese from refugee families sponsored by the church in the 1970s.

“St. John’s has always been a multi-ethnic church,” Maddox said, noting that Olympia pioneer Rebecca Howard was a church member in the 1860s and 1870s. An African American, Howard was owner-operator of the Pacific House hotel and restaurant in downtown Olympia and regarded by many as the town’s first female entrepreneur.

Jessett tells the story of a Sunday service when Howard arrived to take her seat in her familiar pew, only to find a visiting church bishop’s wife and two sisters-in-law occupying that space.

“She (Howard) took a place a few pews away and then turned and stared at Mrs. Morris and her sisters until, they, embarrassed, moved into another pew,” Jessett wrote. “Mrs. Howard then marched triumphantly into her accustomed place.”

A number of events are planned throughout the summer to celebrate the church’s birthday. They include an Aug. 16 pilgrimage with stops at all three Olympia church sites that span the 150 years.

Past and present church members are also asked to share any stories or historic photos they may have of their St. John’s Church experience. They’re welcome to leave a message for Madison at 360-943-4416.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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