St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where I serve as rector, this year is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding.
With this in mind, rather than my own words in this column, I’d like to share a small part of our story and the story of Walla Walla.
St. Paul’s was founded in 1864 by an itinerant priest. The congregation persisted, but remained quite small until the arrival of its first permanent rector, the Rev. Lemuel H. Wells, in 1872. Of his decision to come west, Wells wrote:
“The next year my dear young wife died (this was about a year after their wedding) and in answer to my prayers asking why such a visitation was sent upon me, God revealed to me that it was his wish to have me go into the mission fields. I wrote several missionary Bishops asking if they had any hard missionary work for me, and among others, Bishop Morris of Oregon and Washington wrote me that he wanted to place a man at Walla Walla, Washington. I thought that a place with such a name needed a missionary, and I accepted his offer.”
Wells wrote also about his first day in Walla Walla, revealing a very different city than the one we love today:
“When I arrived at Walla Walla, I went to a little tavern and then called on one of our principal women, and her husband said to me, ‘I will come around this evening and take you out to see the town.’
“There was a great gold rush on, at the time, with crowds of men going to Baker City mining fields, and it seemed as if every second building was a saloon. He took me to look in at one, and just then, a drunken miner in bravado hurled a handful of gold nuggets at a large mirror, shattering it into fragments. Then holding out another handful, of nuggets he hiccoughed out, ‘How much do you want me to pay?’ and paid for the mirror.
“Everyone in those days carried a little morocco case in his pocket containing some tiny scales with which to weigh the gold that was paid him. The gold from Baker City was worth sixteen dollars an ounce; from Idaho, fourteen dollars an ounce, and from some other places, only twelve.
“We were standing in front of another saloon soon after, when a crowd rushed out of the door and we heard pistol shots and a drunken man was rushing after them, firing into their midst. My friend seized me by the shoulder and dragged me into a doorway. In a moment or two some of the crowd turned and riddled the pursuer with bullets and disappeared down the street. I started to give aid to the dying man. but my friend dragged me away, saying, ‘Don’t you know better than that? You will get shot in two minutes. Let him die; he deserved it.’
“The next day I had a meeting of our six communicants and we organized a mission. Our one man, Judge Mix, was elected Warden, and the husbands of our four other women were elected vestry men. I called a meeting of the vestry and one of them said, ‘What in thunder is a vestry?’ (A vestry is the parish council or board in an Episcopal church.) They had never heard of such a thing. Not one of them had ever attended a meeting of the Episcopal Church so I gave them full instructions.
“The meeting was held in the hardware store that belonged to one of them, and after it was over, he said, ‘I go your way, so we can walk home together.’
“As we left the store he drew a revolver and cocked it and put one finger on the trigger and his thumb on the hammer; ready to fire at a moment’s notice, and then held it inside his pocket. Turning to me he said, ‘You won’t mind walking in the middle of the road, will you?’
“‘Why? Its pretty muddy.’
“‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you know I am president of the Vigilantes, and we hung that gambler yesterday and he has a brother who threatens to shoot me on sight, so I don’t want to get too near the dark places on the sidewalk.’
“We got safely home and nothing happened.”
Thank you, O Lord, for our brave ancestors, for pioneers, and for progress. We bless you for 150 years of your care. May we all get safely home.
The Rev. Birch Rambo is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Contact him at email@example.com.