St. James’ Episcopal Church is 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. The beginnings of the church were during a period that was still the “Wild West” in New Mexico, which was still a territory. 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.
In 1875, Bishop W.F. Adams, who was the first bishop of the Missionary Jurisdiction of Arizona and New Mexico, 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. In late 1875, 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. In 1877, Forrester commissioned 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. 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. For the next twenty-four years, various mission clergy were assigned or visited to conduct services.
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. 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 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.
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.
Since that time, St. James has been fortunate to have attracted several long-serving and dedicated rectors. Our current rector, Fr. John Tober, was called to our parish in 2019. We have maintained a connection with NMSU, with many serving and retired faculty and staff in our congregation.
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.