April 22, 2024

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church celebrates sesquicentennial on April 7

150 years of worship: Church has been on National Register of Historic Places for several decades

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church will be celebrating its sesquicentennial at 10 a.m. April 7 in Newton. The church is located at 223 East Fourth Street North.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church’s congregation is not the oldest in the city, but it does have the distinction of being the oldest church edifice in Newton still being used for religious purposes. It is perhaps the oldest in Jasper County.

Built in 1871-74, the church, located at 223 E. 4th St. N., will mark and celebrate its 150 years of service to the people of Jasper County and the surrounding area on Sunday, April 7. Rt. Rev. Betsey Monnot, Bishop of the Diocese of Iowa, will be present for morning worship, which commences at 10 a.m.

Rev. Canon Kathleen S. Milligan is the church’s present Rector, and Rev. Merle Smith, Deacon. They will be in charge of services that morning. Barry Hurto will preside at the organ. All are welcome to attend these services.

Joseph Stevens, an English-born carpenter who came to Newton in 1856, and who, with his wife, Emma, was baptized by Iowa’s first bishop, Rt. Rev. Henry Washington Lee, at Union Hall, an opera house on the east side of the public square, built the church. He was assisted by David S. Stover, a contractor and builder who came to Newton from his native Ohio in 1858.

The church is an excellent example of the relatively unusual “carpenter Gothic” style. It emphasizes the Basilican plan with the steeple at the north entrance.

The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 22, 1977. At a rededication service held on May 17, 1978, details of the building’s remarkable architectural characteristics were highlighted.

“Dominating the overall design is the board and batten siding with arched heads. The Gothic theme is further carried out in the pointed arches of both the clear and stained glass windows, door frames, and louvered openings in the bell tower.

“The interior design and furnishings remain largely in their original form. Hammer beams provide interior support for the sanctuary. The arches formed by this structural feature are repeated in an arrangement of three, high, wide pointed arches opening into the side chapel, chancel and side exit to the education wing. Walls are finished with wainscoting and plaster.”

The beams of the church came from Iowa City and were hauled part of the way by teams and wagons.

There are no records of St. Stephen’s Parish before 1866, although it is known that Rev. J. E. Ryan was the first Protestant Episcopal clergyman to solemnize

marriages in Jasper County. Two couples were married by that reverend gentleman on Dec. 6, 1864.

It is thought D. L. Clark, a layman who came to Newton about 1854 or 1855, read services from the Book of Common Prayer in the Jasper County courthouse. Other services were held there and at Union Hall by Bishop Lee and Rev. X. A. Welton, of Iowa Centre. These services were prior to 1866.

The first resident minister was Rev. William Thomas Currie, a missionary of the “American Church Mission Society.” (The Episcopal Church is the Church of England in America.)

“In January 1866, Rev. W. T. Currie, then principal of the Preparatory Department of Griswold college, Davenport, visited Newton under the appointment of the Board of Missions of the Diocese of Iowa, as missionary on the C. R. I. & P. Railway,” the Parish Register tells us. He found only one Episcopalian.

“In October 1867, Rev. William T. Currie, then rector of St. Paul’s Church, Durant, and general missionary, visited Newton and commenced regular services. The first service was held Sunday, October 27. The missionary then found resident in Newton the following named persons who were communicants of the church: Dr. Jabez Green, Mrs. Alice Van Riper, Mrs. Charlotte Atwater, Mrs. Sarah Jane Miller, [and] Mrs. Carolina Clark. Services were held once a month for two years, in the Congregational and Universalist churches.”

The parish was incorporated Dec. 1, 1868.

The cornerstone of the church was laid in September 1871 by lay members of the congregation without any special ceremony. (It can still be seen in the undercroft of the church.) The cost of the church lot on Washington Street (N. 3rd Ave. E.) was $825. It was purchased by Thomas Arthur, cashier of the First National Bank of Newton, for St. Stephen’s Parish, the deed being duly recorded.

St. Stephen’s Church was “complete in form” by Easter Day 1874. Rev. J. Sanders Reed, Rector of St. Paul’s Church, Des Moines, held the first service in the building April 19, 1874.

The church furniture (including pews, chandeliers, carpet, etc.) was purchased by the Ladies Aid Society of the parish. A pipe organ was purchased for use in the church at a cost of nearly $700, the gift of Col. David Ryan, Thomas Arthur, and Miss Lena Clark. It was reported to be “a rich toned and powerful instrument.”

Two Memorial Windows were placed in the north wall of the church. “The one was given by Rev. W. T. Currie in memory of his brother who was killed in battle at Semmesport, Ala., May 18, 1864,” the Newton Journal reported. “The other is by Mrs. S. A. Bishop, in memory of her mother, Mrs. Ellen Donovan, who died Jan. 21, 1870.”

Repairs and improvements have been made to the church over the years, starting in 1881.

According to the Newton Daily Journal, R. P. Rasmussen, a Newton contractor and builder, was hired “for the general improvement and enlargement” of the church in 1915. “The intention is to enlarge the chancel, add to the sacristy and make of it a choir room, and build a new sacristy, redecorate the church and put on a new roof.”

“This little flock hasn’t a barrel of money, but they are going to do what they can,” the paper noted.

A year later, when the church was remodeled, the Altar Guild, assisted by the Ladies Guild, paid for a new altar, the cost of which was $200.

Twenty-five years ago, a community-wide drive to raise $780,000 for the restoration and preservation of the church was undertaken.

Mayor David Aldridge signed a proclamation acknowledging St. Stephen’s as a community treasure and endorsing the need for restoration and renovation of the then 125-year-old building. Rev. Dr. William J. Ortt was Rector of the church at that time.

On March 21, 1999, “Comesee,” an open house to raise community awareness and financial support for the building restoration project, was held. A groundbreaking followed on August 8.

The Building Committee was reconstituted, and was advised by Floyd Cooper, longtime area building contractor.

To make ready for the sesquicentennial observance, the church has been cleaned throughout and is as neat as a new pin. It is ready to receive its parishioners as well as visitors and former residents, who are cordially invited to attend services and a salad luncheon to follow, Rev. Canon Milligan announced.