‘Like coming home’ – For 150 years, Emmanuel Episcopal has been spiritual sanctuary
They arrived in droves a century and a half ago, fueled by their appetite for gold and glory.
And as they carved out a hardscrabble lifestyle, the Cornish miners and wayward prospectors from points east soon realized their spiritual appetites needed to be satisfied, as well.
And so it is a work in progress, celebrated by the members of Grass Valley’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church who every Sunday gather under rafters erected by their forebears during the town’s earliest days.
“The story of the church is one that has ebbed and flowed with the times of Grass Valley,” said Gage McKinney, author of a book, “Crosses in a Gold Field” that chronicles the history of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church as it relates to the town’s evolution.
On April 24, members of the church will gather to commemorate the day in 1855 when members drew up a constitution for Emmanuel Episcopal. It’s also a celebration for present-day members paying tribute to the contributions of the past.
The physical church began when leaders of the Gold Hill Mining Company deeded a patch of land on Church Street to the leaders of Emmanuel Episcopal in December 1856, on the condition a house of the Lord be built on the land within 18 months.
Church leaders completed the building with the help of $6,000 collected by miners who handed wads of cash and gold nuggets to horseback-riding women of the church who visited the various claims.
The money was used to assemble the wooden planks dominating the carpenter Gothic-style building that retired Maj. Gen. Orlo K. Steele has been attending for 60 years.
“It’s kind of nice to get the chance to tell the story of our church,” said Steele, whose earliest memories of the church include his time as an acolyte under the Rev. Frank Buck in the mid-1940s.
Steele and a group of church members have for two years been assembling a history of the church culled through notes of the church vestry dating back to the 1890s. They’ve combed the state’s historical archives and sought the help of people like McKinney, a Sunnyvale resident whose frequent trips to the church and whose family’s background as Idaho-Maryland Mine workers form the basis for his book.
The church, McKinney said, is a response to God’s love for the members of Emmanuel Episcopal.
Steele has returned that love several times over. He still remembers Buck as a powerful figure who grew membership in the church during a time when the mines flourished.
“I can still hear him in his sermons, about being in the Middle East and walking the path Jesus walked. They guided me, and they had an enduring influence on my life,” said Steele, 72.
Buck served just seven years as rector, yet church members honor his memory by gathering after each Sunday service and holding large meetings in Frank Buck Hall adjacent the church.
Today, the 150 families who attend Emmanuel Episcopal are part of a lineage that includes some of the most prominent names in Grass Valley.
At one time, the list included names like the Bournes, who owned Empire Mine; the Footes, owners of a 19th-century gold operation on the San Juan Ridge; and the Hooper family, whose descendants owned and operated Hooper and Weaver Mortuary.
The Rev. James Sigler, who has led Emmanuel Episcopal for 14 years, believes it’s important to honor the past as the church looks forward to the next 150 years.
“Generally speaking, longevity is a positive for the church,” said Sigler, whose voice rises barely above a whisper during Sunday services.
It’s a past Bridget Edwards hopes to pass down to her two children: Remy, 7, and Mac, 11.
“That’s why we came here,” she said, relaxing in the church’s garden after services Sunday. “I wanted my children to be able to understand the tradition and history of the church.
“The church offers tradition and serenity for us, and feels personal. When I walk in here, it’s like coming home.”
History of Emmanuel Episcopal Church
1855: On March 20, the Rev. William H. Hill of Nevada City
commences services in Grass Valley’s Masonic Hall. On April 27, a parish organizes under the title Emmanuel Church and a constitution is adopted.
1856: On Dec. 11, Gold Hill Quartz Mining Company presents Emmanuel Parish with a plot of land bounded by Mill, Walsh and Church streets on condition that a church is built in 18 months.
1905: Church celebrates its Golden Jubilee.
1913: Campaign begins to remodel church, replacing windows with stained-glass memorial panels.
1939: Parish hall completed.
1944: The Rev. Frank Buck of Vancouver, B.C., arrives. Within a year, church attendance doubles, from 68 to 144, despite the temporary closure of most of Grass Valley mines during World War II.
1955: Church celebrates 100 years.
1981: Church declines to establish branches at Lake of the Pines and Lake Wildwood.
1991: The Rev. James Sigler arrives from Oklahoma, becoming Emmanuel Episcopal Church’s longest-serving pastor in past 100 years.
2005: Emmanuel Episcopal celebrates 150th anniversary.
Source: Emmanuel Episcopal Church Vestry
Celebrations commemorating Emmanuel Episcopal Church’s 150th anniversary:
April 22: Noon, pasty luncheon at United Methodist Church, Grass Valley. Speaker will be Gage McKinney, author of “Crosses in a Gold Field,” about the history of Grass Valley and the Episcopal Church. The Grass Valley Men’s Choir will be performing. Tickets, which are $12.50, can be purchased at the church.
April 24: 10 a.m. church service, processional, singing of “The Emmanuel Anthem” song written for anniversary. At 1 p.m., there will be an open house, with food and drink, and the youth will be burying a time capsule.
For more information, contact the church at 273-7876.
Book captures church’s history
Former Nevada County resident Gage McKinney’s new book, “Crosses in a Gold Field,” is scheduled to be released Sunday. The book is a history of western Nevada County, partly through the eyes of members of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church.
Advance copies of the book will be available for $25. Orders can be made through the Emmanuel Episcopal Church by calling 273-7876.
The book has a print run of 500 that will be available at local bookstores after April 17.
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