Church has seen a lot in 140 years

The pastoral staff and congregation of Old St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Tacoma’s Old Town neighborhood want people to know they are alive and well, said Associate Rector Rev. Ginny Torres.

The church, which is the oldest and first church in the city of Tacoma, is on the National Historical Registry. The members will celebrate its 140th year on Aug. 10 from 12 to 3 pm at the church, located at 2910 N. Starr St.

Everyone is welcome to come celebrate, said Bonnie Leigh, who is in charge of the event. She was also in charge when they celebrated the church’s 135th year.

“What we wanted to do this time for the parishioners was to have a fun and festive day without doing a lot of work,” she explained.

They have hired a catering company and will set up a barbecue for friends, neighbors and anyone who would like to join in. The organist will attend along with members of the clergy. Volunteers will act as docents, sharing the church’s history with visitors.

A pot-bellied stove still sits prominently in the church, and with the windows open and curtains blowing in the breeze, the building has a welcoming and cozy feel to it.

Old St. Peter’s is rich in history.

The organ came around the Cape in 1874 and is still being used. Torres said a family traveling to Tacoma by ship brought the organ with them, and when they arrived in Old Town, they couldn’t pay the additional funds needed to reclaim it. It was auctioned off and the church leaders bid on it, hauled it up to the church and then realized no one knew how to play it.

“They found a young Jewish girl who could play the organ, and she gave concerts and private lessons to raise money. She paid off the organ in three years. By 1878, the church was free and clear. She paid that off, too,” said Torres.

The Old St. Peter’s all-volunteer staff consists of Rev. Morgan A. Johnson, Torres, Rev. Jeff Greenwell and Rt. Rev. John Keliher.

“Our senior priest, Rev. Johnson, works full time at the water department. None of the clergy are paid. Only the organist is paid,” explained Torres.

The collection plate sits near the organ, but asking for money to run the show isn’t a high priority, said Torres. The church is supported and maintained by the congregation and receives no denominational support.

“We have asked for money one time, and that was when the building next door became available,” she said.

St. Peter’s was built using green lumber in 1873 in seven days. There was no bathroom on site, so the congregation had to use the one at the Spar Tavern. In the 1950s, the church was restored. “It did tilt a bit,” said Torres.

When Old Town was in the beginning stages, it consisted of about a two-block long area.

“There were 13 taverns and a jail at either end, and a mill and the mill store, and when they wanted to have a church service, whoever the visiting clergy was would clear a tavern and use it,” Torres said.

In July 1873, the visiting clergy said, “Any town big enough to support 13 taverns can build a church.” The next day, the mill owner announced that he would donate wood to build the church, and added that no one would work or use the mill store or taverns until the church was built. His pronouncement might account for the quick construction.

The bell tower came crashing into a portion of the church in 1935 when hurricane-force winds blew it down.

Torres said that in the early 1950s, Rev. John Keliher received special permission to cut a 60-foot tree on the grounds of what was then Fort Lewis. That tree was used for the current bell tower, and workers buried it 20 feet underground to be sure they didn’t have another toppling event.

Leigh said the church has always been one to welcome everyone, and added many folks don’t realize the church is still an active one.