ChristEpiscopal Church turns 100 years old

Published on Thu, May 13, 2004 by ack Kintner

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Christ Episcopal Church turns
100 years old

By Jack Kintner

Reuben Nevius was born in upstate New York in 1827, the year before Andrew Jackson succeeded John Quincy Adams as president and the year after Thomas Jefferson died. He grew up to become a pioneer missionary in the northwest, planning at least 33 churches and actually building many of them.

The last one Nevius planned was Christ Episcopal Church of Blaine, actually finished in June 1904, the year following Nevius’ retirement. This Sunday the growing congregation will celebrate the building’s centennial.

Nevius was in Blaine for 10 years, with some gaps during which he carried the word to gold rush Alaska. He worked out of a combination chapel and priest’s residence called a “church house” that sat near the southeast corner of 4th and D streets. As one of his final acts Nevius presided over the sale of the property - the $800 it brought becoming part of the funds to build Christ Church. Three years later the old church house was moved to E Street as a private residence.

Four years after that Clare Larson was born. Now 93 and a resident of Stafholt Good Samaritan Center, she can remember being carried to what was the then new church in a baby blanket. Later she assumed responsibility for lighting the fire in the fireplace, then the only source of heat in the building except for a cast iron pot-bellied stove in the social hall.
The building itself is a living catalog of Blaine products available at the turn of the last century. The shingles that cover the sides of the building are made of Western Redcedar and were locally milled. The flooring is locally logged and milled old-growth fir, and the altar, baptismal font, lectern (reading stand) and a few other items were hand carved out of curly maple by J.M. Eaton, an early Blaine cabinet maker who also served at the building’s general contractor. The house he built for himself in 1907 is still in use at 878 Harrison Avenue in Blaine.

The mission congregation, a part of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, spent $115 for the land and $1,906.85 for the building itself. Another $797.65 paid for such improvements as road and sidewalk paving, freight and sewer work for a grand total of $2,819.50.
“And you know, all this wood, the home-made, hand-made pews, the walls and ceiling and floor, it’s all saturated with a century of prayer and devotion,” said Christ Church’s current priest, Father John Gibbs of Bellingham, waving his arms.

Some years the congregation, which is still a mission and not an entirely self-governing parish, has dwindled to just a few. “When I got here in 1972,” said long-time member Mary Rebman, “there were as few as six people in church.”

But recently the congregation has shown some significant growth, hosting over 90 worshippers on Easter Sunday and averaging from 40 to 55 per Sunday otherwise. Rebman, who is also the congregation’s treasurer, said that 10 families have joined in just the last six months. She attributes this to the group’s friendly attitude and the way in which Gibbs’ personal style gives this traditionally-shaped ministry a kind of authenticity. “John retired from St Paul’s in Bellingham for medical reasons,” Rebman said, “and was told then that he might not have much time left, perhaps a few months at the outside. He was told that any activity could be life-threatening, but his reaction to that was to go right back to work, here in Blaine, with the bishop’s permission.”
“Episcopalians like to say they base their actions on tradition, reason and scripture,” Gibbs said, “and it’s in that sense that we as a group then ask ourselves what we’re doing. I believe we’re here to love the people and preach the Gospel, and are to serve regardless of the cost.”
It’s that service, conducted within the framework of tradition described by liturgy, plotted by reason and fed by scripture that has “saturated this building for a hundred years,” Gibbs said with a wink, “because the real story is the people. Of course I’m religious, I’m about to die, but look at what these people do!”

The relentlessly cheerful Gibbs may or may not be hastening the day of his death by working so diligently at something he so obviously loves. He often ends his Sunday liturgies with “see you next week, and if not here, then I’ll be waiting for you in Heaven.”

New member Mike Odell said that it’s Gibbs’ style that drew him here. New member Betty Liepart, 93, from Naperville, Illinois, paused while washing dishes after the coffee hour and smiled “I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, and that’s a long time! I looked all over for a church that was the right size – small – and friendly, having fun doing its work.”

“I live here in Blaine,” said Dawn Corcorran, “but I attend this church because it’s small and close-knit but welcoming, supportive and gets things done despite its small size. It’s just another slice of life in Blaine.”

Gibbs is what’s known in Episcopalian circles as a low-church Priest, dedicated to a liturgical and traditional style of worship rooted in the long history of the church but within that structure using an easy going and informal style, “preferring,” as he quipped, “informality to incense.”

On a recent Sunday, 18-month-old Isaac Buonadonna wandered freely around the church during worship, even circling the altar once or twice before settling down on his mother Elizabeth’s lap for a 15-second nap. “Father John has made us feel welcome here,” said Elizabeth Buonadonna, who began attending Christ Church a few months ago. “Instead of trying to control Isaac, he (Gibbs) just said that he looks like he’s having fun, and reminded people that the name Isaac means ‘laughter.’”

On Sunday the congregation will host Bishop Sanford Hampton who will celebrate mass at the normal 10 a.m. service and will also preach. A reception with a light lunch will follow in the parish hall.