St. James’ has a lengthy and rich history in the Mesilla Valley, as well as the state of New Mexico. Although records indicate that an Episcopal priest, the Rev. F. O. Barstow, working in Mesilla as early as 1871, was active in the community as a dentist, a priest, and a practicing Protestant; credit is given to the Rt. Rev. William Forbes Adams and the Rev. Henry Forrester as being responsible for the formation of the formal church in 1875.
As the first Missionary Bishop of New Mexico and Arizona, Adams visited Mesilla in March 1875, officiating at the marriage of Miss Margaret Jones in the home of Col. Samuel Jones. The home of Col. Jones also housed a school that was run by the wife of Rev. Barstow. Homes were not only used for family living in those days, but for business and worship, as well.
In November 1975, Rev. Henry Forrester visited Mesilla, holding a service in the parlor of District Judge Warren Bristol. Rev. Forrester returned to the valley in December of that year, obviously seeing a need and desire for formal Protestant worship by the local citizens. He purchased a home and lot for church purposes, and then fitted up a part of the mission House as a chapel in 1877. It was at this time that the name “St. James’ Mission” was given to the property. The early life of St. James’ Church had begun.
During the years 1877 until 1889, George D. Bowman, Lay Reader, read services and preached on Sunday mornings when neither the Missionary Priest not the Bishop were in attendance. Today several stained glass windows are present in the church honoring George Bowman and his lifelong dedication to St. James’.
In 1889, after the Rev. Barstow’s transfer to California, the Rev. Henry Forrester took charge of the mission, moving into the Mission House. He organized the Mission, acquired property and invested $1,000 in a substantial adobe structure of one story containing seven good sized rooms—one of which, the Chapel, is eighty feet in length by twelve or fourteen in width.” Over the next ten years, missionary priests came to Mesilla and served the congregation, only staying for brief periods. The climate was harsh and life was hard in New Mexico during these years, nonetheless, the little mission continued.
In October 1900, the Rev. Joseph McConnell took charge of the Mission. In the following year a decision was made to erect an actual church building in Mesilla Park, located approximately 3 miles to the east of the town of Mesilla. The original Mission House was sold and the funds were used toward building the new church. Additional funds were raised through subscription and a monetary gift from the Church Building Commission. A Mr. Kember built the church for the sum of $800.00. This building is now used as the St. James’ Parish Hall and has served the congregation well for over 100 years. The first service was held on September 22, 1901 with Fr. McConnell officiating. Bishop John Mills Kendrick consecrated the building on February 22, 1903. Soon Fr. McConnell left St. James’ to take a new position in Arizona.
By January 1889, George Bowman wrote Bishop Kendrick about the fact that St. James’ still served the 40 miles of the Mesilla valley which then contained “a population of 6,000 or 7,000—three-fourths of whom are Mexican devoted to the Roman Catholic Church. Of the Americans, no one in twenty cares a snap for the religion of any church.” Bowman implored the Bishop to reverse the trend by sending an “able, wise, godly clergyman…to stimulate and enthuse ourselves as to give to sympathetic outsiders the assurance that we have come to stay and that we do not propose to feed them on spiritual froth or intellectual husks.”
The bulk of the history of Christian works that came from out of the little parish of St. James’ were guided by the Rev. Hunter Lewis, who took charge of the church on September 15, 1905, and continued until his death in 1948. Fr. Lewis was most often referred to as Preacher Lewis, and there may not be a person that has lived in the Mesilla Valley for any length of time even today who has not heard of him and his successful and colorful ministry. There are several historical publications that recount the details of his family and the impact of his ministry to the people of the Mesilla Valley and the Rio Grande River Valley. In 1911, Preacher Lewis promoted the building of the present day St. James’ Church (see photo), and it was consecrated by Bishop Frederick Bingham Howden on April 21, 1918.
In 1955, the Rev. Walter J. Crossman came to St. James’ as Rector, as the mission had now been elevated to Parish status. He served St. James’ until 1962. The list of priests who have served St. James’ is commemorated today in portraits in the Parish Hall printed by local artist George Gray. The members of this quaint country church continue to thrive in fellowship, worship, and service, practicing their Christian faith based in the Anglican Tradition, growing with demands of an ever changing community and world.