St. James’ Episcopal Church is considered to be one of the oldest non-Roman Catholic churches in southern New Mexico, with a colorful history and long record of service to its parishioners and the community in Dona Ana County.
Records show that the first Episcopal services in Dona Ana County were held in 1871, likely at someone’s home and conducted by lay members interested in establishing a church. Word of the early efforts reached Bishop W.F. Adams, who was the first bishop of the Missionary Jurisdiction of Arizona and New Mexico, and in 1875, he conducted a service in the town of Mesilla. In addition to the service, he conducted a marriage ceremony at the home of Col. C.S. Jones on March 11, 1875.
It is important to note that the beginnings of the church were during a period when it could truly be called the “Wild West” in New Mexico, which was still a territory at the time. Kit Carson, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett were regular visitors to the Mesilla Valley, the Apache warriors Geronimo and Victorio roamed the region and still conducted raids on settlers, and travel was mostly by horseback, stagecoach or on foot. Travelers were occasionally in danger of being interrupted by outlaws and severe weather events.
By November of that 1875, Bishop Adams had left the Missionary Jurisdiction but the Rev. Henry Forrester made his first visit to Mesilla, where Episcopal services had been held periodically. Forrester conducted a service in November in the parlor of District Judge Warren Bristol and in December he returned to hold another service. He also purchased a house and a lot in Mesilla for eventual construction of a permanent church. More services were held in February and March of 1876, with members meeting in the adobe building in Mesilla purchased by Forrester. In October of 1876, a school was opened in connection with the church.
Forrester was not always present at the church, traveling periodically to the East Coast in an attempt to raise funds for the new church and performing clerical duties in other regional churches. By February of 1877, Forrester had returned and began fitting the adobe building in Mesilla as a chapel, commissioning prominent Mesilla Valley resident George D. Bowman as lay reader to conduct services when needed. It was in 1877 that the church was designated as St. James’ Mission.
Bowman, an attorney who moved to New Mexico from Pennsylvania, figured prominently in the establishment and growth of the church, as can be witnessed by the numerous memorials inside the present church in the name of members of his family. He was involved in the establishment of what became the Elephant Butte Irrigation District system for distributing water to farmers in the Mesilla Valley and also established one of the area’s early banks and insurance companies. His grandson, Bodo Otto Bowman, who died at age 14 from a ruptured appendix, was the first Crucifer for the vested choir in church services. The young Bowman is memorialized in two stained glass windows, including one in the transept and the other above the altar.
From 1877 to 1880, Forrester visited the mission one or two times a year to help keep it viable. The second bishop of the Arizona and New Mexico Missionary Jurisdiction, the Rt. Rev. George K. Dunlop, visited the church in December of 1880, accompanied by Forrester. After 1882, there were no regular services by a clergyman, although Bowman continued in his role as lay reader and Forrester made periodic appearances.
In 1889, major changes were underway in the Mesilla Valley. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway had made a decision to locate a new railway about three miles east of Mesilla because landowners there had demanded excessively high prices for the railroad right of way. The Dona Ana County seat was also moved from Mesilla to the new town of Las Cruces, where the railroad station was constructed. And in April of that year, the Rev. J.M. Kendrick, Bishop Dunlop’s successor, determined that the time was ripe for appointment of a permanent clergyman – Rev. Forrester.
Forrester left the parish in 1890 and in 1891, Joseph Sheerin, Postulant for Holy Orders, took charge of the mission for approximately two months. The next person in charge of the mission was Rev. Joseph McConnell, who was also in charge of missions in Socorro, San Marcial and Las Cruces.
In 1901, funds had been raised to construct a permanent church in Mesilla Park. The simple rectangular building was made of adobe bricks for a cost of $800. Now much modified, the original church is used as a parish hall and underwent a major renovation in 2017 and 2018. The first service was held by Rev. McConnell in the new church on Sept. 22, 1901.
On Sept. 15, 1905, the legendary Rev. Hunter “Preacher” Lewis took charge of the church and led it until his death in 1948. Lewis, who moved to New Mexico following assignments with churches in Texas, was born and raised in Virginia. He was a tireless leader and evangelist for the Episcopal Church throughout southern New Mexico, establishing and supporting several new mission churches in its central Rio Grande valley. He was known for raising funds for the church by visiting saloons and asking for donations from patrons, then twisting the arm of prominent philanthropists throughout the United States. He knit caps for newborn babies, conducted baptisms for almost anyone who wanted one and regularly invoked the ire of the national church leadership because of his unorthodox approach to ministry. He never learned to drive and traveled his vast missionary area by rail, hitching rides in mail cars or on foot.
Lewis was involved in the establishment of one of the first Boy Scout troops in New Mexico about 1912, allowing it to meet at the church and serving as its sponsor. That troop moved to another church in 2018.
Lewis led the effort to construct a larger new church just across the street from the original adobe building. Completed in March of 1912, the brick gothic structure with ornate woodwork and colorful stained glass windows cost $6,000 to build and today remains an architectural jewel in the Mesilla Valley.
Under his leadership, what is believed to be the first vested choir of an Episcopal Church in the territory was expanded and became a prominent fixture for performances in the Mesilla Valley. Several of its members, all young men who attended the fledgling New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University) are memorialized in windows in the transept of the church. Members of Lewis’ family and his wife’s family also are memorialized throughout the church.
Following Lewis’ death, the church was placed under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Rice, and soon afterwards, Rev. Bancroft Smith was appointed as Vicar. In 1953, the church became a parish under Smith’s leadership.
From 1955 to 1962, the church was served by the Rev. Walter Crossman. Under his tenure, the church added classrooms and offices adjacent to the parish hall. Crossman was somewhat controversial because he supplemented his income as a DJ for a local radio station. Crossman explained that the additional income was used to help the church.
The Rev. Conrad Kelly served the church for eight years until 1970. He was followed by the Rev. Ralph Channon who served until 1973.
In 1973, the much beloved Rev. Fernando Salazar, a native of San Antonio, Tex., took charge of St. James. Salazar served the parish for 22 years. During Salazar’s tenure, the church helped establish Canterbury Center on the New Mexico State University campus. The center later closed. Membership during Salazar’s tenure was relatively stable, with limited growth.
The Rev. Charles de Vries was named as interim rector following Salazar’s Retirement. He held the position for a year until the appointment of Rev. Addison Hart in 1995. Hart left the church after only 18 months, a period in which there was controversy over some of his actions and during which he was at odds with several policies of the national church. He converted to join the Roman Catholic Church.
Fr. De Vries took over again as interim priest in 1998 and was also joined by Rev. Ron Thompson of El Paso to help serve the church until the appointment of the Rev. Brian Hobden. Originally from England, Hobden’s popularity and appeal led to a tripling in the size of the congregation. At one time the church added a third service on Sundays to accommodate the growing number of parishioners. During this time, Rev. Dr. Frank Williams, who had served in parishes around the country, joined St. James as an assistant priest. Hobden’s wife, Mary, opened a successful small gift shop in the parish hall.
Hobden planned to retire in 2005 and hand- picked as his successor the Rev. Jacob Worley, for whom the church had supplied financial support for his schooling. However, Worley became involved in efforts to establish a new church and left St. James’. His selection as interim rector was also in violation of diocesan rules. Approximately one-third of St. James members left the congregation when Worley departed to form his own church, now affiliated with the Reformed Episcopal tradition. Hobden returned as interim rector.
The Rev. Dr. Nicholas Funk, a former Army officer and graduate of the seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, became rector in 2007 and served through May of 2018 when he accepted an offer to become rector of a church in a suburb of Dallas, TX. During Funk’s tenure, attendance declined, due in some part to disagreements with the national church and the Rio Grande Diocese, personnel matters and budget/finance issues
Several positive initiatives were started during Funk’s administration, including correction of structural problems in the original adobe building that served as the church parish hall. Once completed, another effort was started to refurbish the interior of the building, which was completed in 2018. The efforts to refurbish the historical building earned considerable local publicity. Funk also helped move the church toward better use of technology and opened the opportunity for the church facilities to be used by paying outside groups. He also conducted annual Lenten and Advent study sessions for the entire congregation. During part of Funk’s tenure, Fr. Hobden continued to support the church with periodic service.
Following Funk’s resignation, the Diocese appointed the Rev. Dr. Jeanne Lutz as interim rector, a move which brought back stability to the congregation. “Padrecita” Jeanne, as she likes to be called, has served in Episcopal parishes in Las Cruces, El Paso and Albuquerque and also served as a pastor in the Lutheran Church (ELCA), under the terms of our full-communion agreement, Called to Common Mission.
Others who have served the church in recent years included Richard Higgs, a former physician who was ordained a priest in 2002. He went to St. Andrews in 2006 and then he and his wife later left the Episcopal Church to join the Catholic Church where he served as a priest under special rules.
Deacons in recent years were Anne Turrie, who was ordained in 2009, but later joined St. Andrews in 2012; and Charlie Watson, who was ordained in 1999 and served until his death in 2009.
Major community projects conducted by St. James’ in recent years included support of the J. Paul Taylor Center for incarcerated young men in the community and the Community of Hope Soup Kitchen. Church members were also involved in providing food in backpacks for low income children in the community schools and other volunteer efforts for Jardin de Los Niños and the Foxhole Ministry.