Part 1: Before the Beginning

Posted by C. A. Conn, With 0 Comments, Category: Church on Demand,

For at least 130 years, Episcopal groups have worked in the San Jacinto Valley; for 76 of those years – even before there was a Diocese of Los Angeles—there was a congregation in San Jacinto called St. Paul’s.

St. Paul's San Jacinto

The former St. Paul’s in San Jacinto

Next year will mark 50 years since that mission ended and the church was sold. It exists now as a canonical register resting in Good Shepherd’s office, a bell in the courtyard, and a baptismal font in the Narthex. But there’s a history there – of people and activities and influence – that is worth recounting.

To tell that story, we need to begin with the first incidents of the Episcopal Church in the territory of California. And, just as a point of interest (and to suggest a site to visit on your next tour of San Francisco), we’ll take a brief step back – to 1579!

Elizabethan BCP

Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer

In that year, Sir Francis Drake (remember him from history class? The first man to successfully circumnavigate the globe?) landed his ship, the Golden Hind just above what is now San Francisco. His chaplain, Francis Fletcher (who fortunately kept a journal of the voyage), conducted a religious service onshore (probably several) using the Book of Common Prayer. It is notable as the first use of the BCP in the new world.

A fascinating tidbit, but it doesn’t really connect to the early Episcopal Church in California until 1892, when Bishop William Ford Nichols, second bishop of the California Diocese, “with a small party, visited Drake’s Bay, and, on a hill near the shore, erected a wooden cross, using a short stake” to commemorate the event.i There was some discussion of a more permanent monument, but it wasn’t until more than a year later that it became possible.

George Childs

George W. Childs, Esq

In the summer of 1893, Philadelphia publisher, financier and philanthropist, George W. Childs, wrote to Bishop wrote to Nichols, “I have seen from time to time some mention made of your efforts for a monument,.. If you will go ahead with the matter so near your heart and have it done to your entire satisfaction, I will cheerfully pay all the expenses.”ii It was no idle
promise – Mr. Childs was the epitome of the ‘self-made American’ and in addition to his other philanthropic activities he had funded numerous such monuments, including a William Shakespeare memorial fountain at Stratford-on-Avon and the final donation to complete the Edgar Allan Poe monument in Baltimore.

The plan was to replace the wooden cross above the bay, but the parks commission in San Francisco tendered a site some 300’ higher – where it would not only be a conspicuous landmark, but also be visible from the ocean.

CrossIn the shape of a Celtic cross and known as “The Prayer Book Cross,” it is 57 feet high, standing upon a pedestal 17 feet 6 inches square and 7 feet high. The material is a native blue sandstone, which means that it is slowly wearing away. Lately, the final two lines of the monument have disappeared, leading some tour sites to list it as “a gift of the Church of England.” The lines which have worn away once read:

Gift of George W. Childs, Esquire, of Philadelphia.
               Soli Deo sit semper gloria.”

PB Cross Unveiling

Prayer Cross unveiling December 1894

The Prayer Book Cross was unveiled at the midwinter exposition in December, 1894.iv At the time it was the largest man-made cross in the world, and even though it is now a subject as much for bloggers as for sight-seers, it is a notable landmark and memorial.

The connection with the Episcopal Church in California is only tangential and, according to Episcopal historiographer Rev. D. O. Kelley, the next event is also not directly connected. However, it seems to set in motion the actions of San Franciscans to bring a church to the Pacific coast.

In August, 1846, as the U.S. began the war with Mexico, the “Seventh” New York Volunteers regiment under Colonel Stevenson was mustered into Federal service. The unit’s chaplain, Episcopal minister Rev. Thaddeus M. Leavenworth, sailed with the regiment to California,v and on May 2, 1847 held the first “religious, non-Roman service” in Six days later, he held a meeting “for the purpose of ascertaining … the establishment of a church in the town of San Francisco.”vii Rev. Leavenworth (also a lawyer, physician, druggist) was elected Alcalde (Mayor) of San Francisco 1848-49 and had no more direct connection in bringing the church to California.

The connection between Rev. Leavenworth’s meeting and subsequent events is not direct; it seems likely, however, that the seeds he helped plant were effective. Less than a year later, they flowered into a most unexpected start for the Protestant Episcopal Church in California. And that will be Part 2.

i Church Bells, 1894
iii History of the diocese of California from 1849 to 1914″
iv “A DOUBLE HOLIDAY,” Los Angeles Herald, Volume 41, Number 72, 1 January 1894
v NY Regiment records
vi The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco; Gold Rush Chronology
vii California Star, Volume 1, Number 18, May 8, 1847

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