Old church now part of Garden of Memories cemeteryWORTHINGTON — It could be said that the first church in Worthington — St. John’s Episcopal Church — was built by tourists.
WORTHINGTON — It could be said that the first church in Worthington — St. John’s Episcopal Church — was built by tourists.
“A party of southerners spent their summers in Worthington. Among those were … members of an Episcopal Church in St. Joseph, Mo. These persons took the first interest in forming the church and raised $25.50, which they gave to the Rev. (D.) Gunn,” states “Nobles County History,” edited by Al Goff and published by the Nobles County Historical Society.
In 1878, Minnesota’s first Episcopalian Bishop, Henry Whipple, pledged $300 toward the fund to build a church in Worthington.
That seed money, and the many donations that followed, was used to build a simple, unpretentious church that opened in 1882 under the leadership of the Rev. D. Gunn.
It was located on Fourth Avenue between 11th Street and 12th Street.
According to a bulletin published for the St. John’s centennial in 1982 — likely written by Etta Webb Stanton and Luella Leak — the building of the new church wasn’t easy.
At one point, Gunn was so discouraged by lack of progress that he canceled his appointments and decided to retire. On hearing people were still interested in the church, Gunn offered them a challenge: he would put up the church if the members would build its foundation.
A committee of collection, organized by W. A. Peterson, M. Madison and Maggie Chatwick, raised the money for the foundation, and the church was completed, with its first service on July 18, 1882.
Early on, it became obvious the church was too small. In 1883, an extension was added to the back of the church for the choir, which was later used as the office, sacristy and vestry.
St. John’s clergy often resided elsewhere and came to Worthington via train, so service times were set by the train schedule, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. Later, the church’s vicars traveled by car.
The St. John’s Women’s Guild was always essential to the church’s well-being. In 1897, the group hosted dinners, teas, socials and sales, and quilted, sewed and mended for 75 cents an afternoon, all to raise funds for coal, taxes, building repairs and improvements and the rector’s salary — $1 per service. During World War I, the Women’s Guild produced bandages, gowns and slings in support of the war effort, in addition to their other sewing projects, scheduling extra meetings in order to get it all done.
Just after a visit from a bishop in 1917, someone tried to steal the church’s prized solid brass cross. Because the inscription on the base of the cross made it easy to identify, the thief tried to break it loose, damaging it but ultimately failing to gain possession of the item.
In 1921, the church was raised and improved again, with a sewer line and a new basement, to the tune of $1,236.
Later, in 1935, the church’s land went on sale for $2,500 per lot, or $2,000 if both lots were purchased, but no one made an offer. The asking price went down over time, but in 1937 an offer of $4,000 was turned down, just after the church put in a new sidewalk, re-shingled half its hail-damaged roof and installed a furnace. The church kitchen was remodeled in 1942.
By 1946, the church had grown so much it needed its own priest and rectory. St. John’s first priest, John Thomas, was paid $125 a month and lived in an apartment purchased by the church.
In 1954, First Methodist Church purchased St. John’s land for $36,000 and a new building, St. John’s-by-the-Lake, was built near Lake Okabena. The first service in the new building was Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955.
The old building was purchased by N. L. Hanson and moved to the Garden of Memories Cemetery, where it is still used about three times a year for funeral services.
Almost everything in the building, including its unusual iridescent pink and white lamps and most of its stained glass, is original to the 1882 church.
An attempt to put the church on the National Register of Historic Places failed in 1987 because the building had been moved.
It was, however, listed in the Minnesota Inventory of Historic Sites, a working file of properties identified as being of local historical interest.
“We encourage the interest that has been shown in the church and would hope that, although designation of the church may not be appropriate, this interest be channeled to provide for the continuing preservation of the building,” wrote Susan Roth, a research historian with the Minnesota Historical Society.