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Emmanuel Episcopal celebrates 150 years

Some 150 years ago, two teenage girls rode on horseback through the Sierra foothills to collect coins and nuggets from the open hands of the placer miners for the building of a new church.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Grass Valley opened its doors in 1858 through the generosity of 49ers and the gift of land from a gold mining company. The church will remember generations of faithfulness when it holds a sesquicentennial service at Aug. 3 at 10:30 a.m.

The service will use a historic liturgy from the time when the church first opened. A service booklet will include historic photos. A reception will follow in Buck Hall beside the church. Everyone is invited.



This is the second anniversary at Emmanuel Church in recent years. The parish celebrated the sesquicentennial of its founding three years ago. This celebration will mark 150 years since the church structure, a relic of the Gold Rush era and the carpenter Gothic style, first welcomed worshippers.

In the succeeding years, Emmanuel has become the oldest Episcopal church in continuous use in California. Through postcards, paintings and prints it has come to represent its town and region.




Back in 1858 those girls on horseback were Isabel Attwood, the daughter of a mine manager, and Jennie Jenkins, the daughter of a Cornish miner. They attended confirmation class together before striking on their novel scheme for fundraising.

Both girls eventually lived far away from the mining camp where they were raised.

Isabel married a Royal Navy officer and settled in London. Jennie married a wealthy French mine owner and lived in Paris. Years later ,she returned to Grass Valley and in the 1890s helped to organize an altar guild at Emmanuel.

A century and a half later teens are still making important contributions to the church. Last year Christopher Boyer, 16, organized the construction of a 10-foot by 12-foot concrete-floored maintenance shed for the church as part of an Eagle Scout project. “We built it sturdily,” said Christopher, a senior at Bear River High. “We hope it will last as long as the church has.”

Christopher is also, with sisters, Elizabeth 14, and Sarah, 13, among the teenagers who serve on Sundays as acolytes. Other members of the acolyte guild include Andrea and Andrea Amdall, Greer Scirpo, Molly Shine, Will and Jason Carrara and Dawson Goepel.

Cecilia Chan was almost a teenager in the 1950s when she first visited Emmanuel Church with two friends from school. “We were visiting all the churches,” she remembered. “I liked Emmanuel the best. I liked the order of the worship and the music.” She was eventually baptized and confirmed.

After living many years in San Francisco and seeing the world as an international flight attendant, Chan returned like Jennie Jenkins to Grass Valley and Emmanuel church.

Melba Polglase, 92, remembers that she was about 15 when she first came to the Emmanuel to join a youth group. Pauline Whiting, 92, the longest-continuing member, tells of the time before the parish hall was built when Sunday school classes met in the historic church.

If the Emmanuel Church building seems like an anachronism today, it was intended that way. A Gothic revival had come to America in the 1800s and the Grass Valley Episcopalians wanted a Gothic church.

William Bettis, a builder and designer who worked on the county courthouse and other buildings, accommodated them. He probably adapted a design from a book.

While Europeans conceived the Gothic form in stone, Bettis turned to the materials at hand, especially the fine timber of California. He blended European features with American practicality and used a steam-powered saw to fashion the details that resemble stone carvings.

The effect was a structure that is uniquely American and at the same time evokes another time and place. Emmanuel Church encompassed a sacred space by standing in striking contrast to any other structure in a town dominated by mining. It asserted another order of reality.

The carpenter Gothic style is identified with the Gold Rush architecture that in another form gave Grass Valley’s historic district its brick buildings with iron doors and shutters.

For succeeding generations maintaining the wooden church became an expression of faith and continuity. Church members supported a major restoration thirty years ago with their contributions and sweat. A lumber company donated beams, lumber and siding. The Methodist Church, across the street from Emmanuel, sponsored a pasty dinner to help.

Later projects included a repainting of the church in the early 1990s. Men of the parish, who meet for breakfast and workdays, provide much of the routine maintenance. They recently removed a deteriorating wooden walkway in preparation for the sesquicentennial celebration.

From the beginning the members of Emmanuel have also been active beyond their own grounds. Emmanuel church women helped to organize Grass Valley’s Ladies Relief Society in the 1870s, a cherished institution in the town.

Today, alongside members of other churches, they support the Emergency Assistance Coalition, Habitat for Humanity, Hospitality House, Interfaith Food Ministry and Manzanita House, a transitional housing program.

The parish has changed with the times but don’t try to make any changes to the church itself. “‘Oh no you won’t,’ the old-timers will say,” said Pauline Whiting. She said members are especially protective of the rood screen, an old-fashioned feature that adorns the sanctuary.

On August 3 as worshippers file quietly into the church for the special service they will enter into a house of prayer that the early settlers created. They may reflect on the fact that compared to the centuries-old churches of Europe that it emulates, Emmanuel Church itself is still a teenager.

“There’s a feeling of warmth” about Emmanuel Church, said Rev. Francis O’Reilly, who was rector in the 1970s. He added: “You really feel that it is God’s house. I don’t know of any other place I’d like to go.”

At Emmanuel Church worshippers agree with O’Reilly.

The Rev. Philip Reinheim, the interim rector, will preside at the sesquicentennial service. Debra Wicks is the senior warden or lay leader of the pairsh.

For more information contact the Emmanuel Church office at (530)273-7876.

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