What is the oldest church in Carson City?
September 4, 2008
In 1859, Carson City was a new territorial town. Houses and businesses were being built, and goods were in short supply. Carson didn’t have a newspaper until the Territorial Enterprise came to town from Genoa. Early reports in the paper on Dec. 8, 1859, said that, “Our town is growing very rapidly. The scarcity of lumber has, however, seriously retarded the growth. Persons intending to build substantial structures are unable to carry out their intentions this winter, on account of the cost and scarcity of building material.”
There were no church structures in the early days. However, services did take place. “Preaching – There will be preaching at the Carpenter Shop of Messrs. Grant and Young on the next Sabbath. Services will commence at 11 o’clock, a.m.” (Territorial Enterprise, Jan. 4, 1860). Many early services were held in the courthouse in Carson City. “St. Peter’s, Carson City, the State Capital, was started in 1862 with service by the Rev. Mr. Rising in the courthouse. [Mr. Rising left the Territory in 1866 on account of his southern sympathies.]” (Historical Magazine, The Church in Nevada.)
So which Carson City church is the oldest? When researching this topic, the oldness of a church is dependent on many factors: when the first minister came, where the service was held, when the church was built, and whether the original church is still in use today.
There are four prominent churches in Carson City that were originated in the 1800s – St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, the First Presbyterian Church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and the First Methodist Church.
St. Teresa’s Catholic Church
On Sept. 15, 1860, a group of Carson City citizens donated a block of land on Division, Proctor and Minnesota streets to Father Gallagher as a site for the Catholic Church. The Carson church that was built in 1860, “… was shortly afterwards blown down in a hurricane, and the lumber was taken away by those who had a claim for wages.” (Thompson and West).
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In the diary of Jacob Klein, an early Catholic resident and owner of the brewery across the street, those days were recalled. “The first church built was the Catholic church. It was built on the present site of the Catholic Church on King Street in 1860. It blowed down in 1862. Father Gallagher was pastor of it. He built it with my help.” The church was rebuilt in 1865 by Father John Curley. In 1870 Father John Grace built St. Teresa’s Church and additions were made in 1949.
The First Presbyterian Church
The First Presbyterian Church was built in 1864 and is tied to Mark Twain. He raised $100 to help complete construction in 1864 when he was a Territorial Enterprise reporter. Orion Clemens, his brother, was a member of the church from 1861 to 1866. His daughter Jennie was saving money to purchase a Pulpit Bible for the new church. Unfortunately, she died from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Her parents and the members of the congregation added the funds to complete the purchase. “Jennie’s Bible” is one of the churches treasured historic possessions.
The Presbyterian church has been active since June 2, 1861. Rev. W.W. Brier was the minister and met with a group of worshippers at the Stone Schoolhouse (this was Carson City’s first schoolhouse located at the northeast corner of Musser and Nevada Street – constructed of blocks from the Nevada State Prison Quarry).
Construction was not started on the Church until early 1863. It is noted in Myron Angel’s History of Nevada that this public meeting at the Schoolhouse was the first get-together of Presbyterians ever to be called in Nevada. The Rev. A. F. White became the first pastor in September 1861 and preached his first sermon at the stone schoolhouse and later in the Carson City Courthouse. A site for the church was purchased between Musser and King Streets.
By October 1861, building began. By December of 1862, the brick walls were up. Because of the financial depression of the western towns and recession on the Comstock, completion of the church was delayed until 1864. The Church was dedicated by Rev. White, assisted by Rev. William C. Pond on May 9, 1864. (Information from History of the First Presbyterian Church in Carson City, Nevada, Including all alterations, additions to, and remodeling work done on the church structure itself, 1861-1997.)
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church
The Episcopal Church is the oldest existing Episcopal Church in Nevada. On Nov. 9, 1863, a group of laymen were chosen as wardens and vestrymen. The wardens were messrs. D. S. King and A. H. Griswold, with Gov. Jas. W. Nye, Judge Geo. Turner, Dr. A. W. Tjader and Messrs. H. F. Rice, H. M. Yerington, J. Dorsey and P.W. Van Winkle as vestrymen.
The church was constructed by the Corbett Brothers, and by October of 1867 it was shingled and sided. By November 3 of that year the steeple had been placed. Rev. George B. Allen gave the first sermon on Aug. 8, 1868. On June 19, 1870, Bishop Whitaker consecrated the church (The First Hundred Years). The stained glass windows in the back of the church were installed in 1873. The King David window in the front of the belfry came around Cape Horn by ship to San Francisco, then over land to Nevada by freight wagon. The famous window was reportedly made at least 150 years ago, and a gift to St. Peter’s from another St. Peter’s church in England.” (Reno Evening Gazette, Nov. 8, 1963). “In 1881 the much cracked bell was recast in the shops of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. After its rehanging, the local paper was moved to publish the following:
“And after the hanging Its regular clanging
Will bid the worshippers, bend the knee.
In spire of St. Peter
T’will sound the sweeter
Than in the shops of the V & T.” (Historical Magazine, The Church in Nevada)
The First United Methodist Church
The First United Methodist Church began in Carson City in 1859 with Jesse L. Bennett, Methodist preacher. The first religious services were held at the Eagle Ranch. He is said to be the first Protestant preacher in Nevada. In 1862, plans for a new building were made, but nothing materialized. The trustee board bought land at the present site for $1,000 and preparations were made for a stone church building (stone from the prison quarry). The Church was dedicated on Sept. 8, 1867.
In a paper called, “Steeples Among the Sage” by Leon L. Loofbourow, there is a report about the first minister Jesse L. Bennett that indicates the courage and determination of the times. “… Jesse L. Bennett was no softy. Though usually out on the ragged edge of civilization, he was a gentle and modest man … He walked his circuit, which at times involved two hundred miles to make the round … By 1858, he was in Nevada in communities in the Carson Valley; at Virginia City he preached on the street. When a saloon keeper passed the hat, he was quite overcome with the offering …” The Editor of the Carson Appeal in 1874 wrote “Many is the time we have seen this brave cheerful, prayerful little man’s plug hat looming up from the springless seat of a stone laden mules cart …” Colonel Shaw of the Territorial Enterprise goes on to say: “In fact, so earnestly did this heroic clergyman address himself to the building of his church that the people stood by him with all possible and needed financial help …”
The original intent of this article was only to write about the oldest church in Carson City, instead I have written about four. I couldn’t make a determination to which one met the criteria of “the oldest.” They all have wonderful historical beginnings – you decide.
• Sue Ballew is the daughter of Bill Dolan, who wrote the Past Pages column for the Nevada Appeal from 1947 until his death in 2006. She is past president of the Carson City Historical Society.