Emmanuel Episcopal Church turns 160: Celebrating the history of the landmark church in Grass Valley
August 2, 2018
This week the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Grass Valley celebrates the 160th anniversary of its sanctuary, as one of the county's iconic buildings.
The church was built on land donated by the Gold Hill Quartz Mining Company, an early and successful firm. The gift stipulated completion of a church within 18 months. The company had previously rented a house on the property to Lola Montez, an Irish dancer and actress who had become a Bavarian countess.
The parish, which had organized three years earlier, began a building campaign. The most novel fund-raisers were two teenage girls, Isabel Attwood and Elizabeth "Jennie" Jenkins. They spent days on horseback, visiting the claims in the district and collecting nuggets from the open hands of the placer miners. The girls' family names are inscribed on stained-glass windows.
With funds in hand, the parish commissioned William Bettis, a local designer-builder, to build the church. He had built many of the stylish houses on Richardson Street.
The parish specified a building "in the Gothic style." Gothic architecture developed in the 1200s in European cathedrals built with stone. It came to America as a revival in the 1800s, reintroduced in reaction to the dislocations and traumas of the Industrial Revolution.
In this country, where fine timber was plentiful, innovative Americans translated the style into wood, creating a new style called "Carpenter Gothic." The sculpting patterns achieved by European artisans were replicated in Grass Valley with the help of new, steam-powered scroll-saws.
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The church is distinguished by its verticality. Inside, the building features a long narrow nave, taller than it is wide; a ribbed-vault ceiling; pointed arches and pointed windows. Outside there's a gabled roof line; vertical buttresses; small, decorative spirals; and high crosses.
Every detail of the design reaches toward a higher plane. The windows, especially the altar window in front and the rose window at the rear, channel light from above. In an impermanent Gold Rush-era camp, the church expressed a longing for permanent things.
The result is a uniquely American structure which evokes another time and place. Emmanuel Church encompasses a sacred space by standing in striking contrast to any other building in town. It asserts a spiritual reality.
Emmanuel Church first opened its doors for worship on Aug. 1, 1858, barely meeting the 18-month deadline. The building has survived to become the oldest Episcopal Church edifice in the American West.
From the start the building attracted photographers and inspired artists, including George Mathis, a prominent mid-20th century painter. The likeness of Emmanuel Church has appeared on postcards, calendars, notecards, book covers, tea towels, blankets and mouse pads, making it one of the most enduring images of Nevada County.
The 160th-year celebration began last Sunday with a sermon connecting the parish history to the Christian gospel. It continues this Sunday at the fellowship hour following each of the three services at 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. The church is located at 235 South Church Street, Grass Valley.
Today the parish is served by the Rev. Seth Kellermann and a staff of clergy and lay people.
Source: Emmanuel Episcopal Church
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