NEVADA: Saving St. Paul's: Old Virginia City church struggles to preserve building
St. Paul's parish was organized on the Comstock in 1861, and the church was rebuilt in 1876 because of a fire
By SUSAN SKORUPA
Feb 3, 2013
There is an iconic image of Virginia City in photos taken approaching the town from the north where two church steeples rise side by side into the air, but with one reaching higher than the other.
The taller structure is part of St. Mary's in the Mountains, Virginia City's historic Catholic Church.
The other is St. Paul's the Prospector Episcopal Church, equally historic, but perhaps not as well-known as its neighbor.
Right now, the small parish, which was founded in 1861, is struggling to preserve its church, built in 1876 after the original structure was destroyed in the famous Virginia City fire of 1875. Attendance at Sunday services might number only a dozen or so people with a collection of $60 or so, said parishioner Helen Sundt.
Foremost on the list of things to do is to upgrade the church's massively outdated electrical system. The cost of fixing it will run about $400, but only because a friend of the church is donating his labor, said the Rev. Ken Curtis, pastor.
"He promised to do what he could to help out," Curtis said.
With plenty of other projects needed - from new paint to structural work - repairs could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, just to get started, Curtis said.
"I have no idea of the total cost," he said.
"The main thing now is to keep it open," Curtis said. "My hope is to somewhere end up finding the money to make the repairs and upgrades. Where, I do not know.
"But it seems one door closes and another one opens. I hope that one opens and that some group will look and see that this is a treasure worth keeping."
The original church
St. Paul's parish was organized on the Comstock in 1861. The first church was built for $30,000 and formally opened in February 1863. The building was damaged in an 1868 fire, then enlarged in 1872, according to a 1972 story in the Nevada State Journal.
But the Great Fire of 1875 took out the church, surrounding buildings, including St. Mary's, and the homes of many residents. The church was rebuilt the following year.
St. Paul's today, at 87 South F St., remains much as it did in 1875. "Everything is pretty much original outside," said parishioner Christy Ryan.
Inside, the original walls and floors made of pine and sugar pine have aged and settled with a smooth patina of weathering. The ceiling in the church proper soars.
The pipe organ came around the Horn of Africa by ship from New York to be installed in the new church after the fire, Sundt said.
"Before electricity, there were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling," she said. "The ceiling fans and the furnace are modern, all else is original."
Walking through the church, all that history is tangible, but so are the physical problems the church faces. The harsh climate in Virginia City and the lack of funds to keep up the property are evident at the front door, where the paint on the exterior walls and window ledges is blistered and peeling.
Heating a problem
On a chilly January morning, the temperature inside the church is noticeably colder than outside. Because heating costs run so high, the furnace is turned on only for Christmas and Easter Sunday services, Sundt said. Even that short time costs about $400, she said.
Plumbing pipes are kept well-wrapped, Sundt said, and electric heaters provide some warmth throughout the building when people are inside working, but even with that, Sunday services in winter are held in a room on the lower floor with parishioners gathered close to a heat source.
In the church proper, blankets, afghans and quilts are scattered around the pews to provide extra warmth for people when services are held there. Electrical wiring is long past its prime.
St. Paul's receives no money from the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada for repairs or upgrades, said Bishop Dan Edwards.
"Not that the diocese does not want to, but the diocese budget is smaller than the budgets of some of the congregations," he said. "We have absolutely minimal resources to work with.
"We could spend every penny the diocese has on St. Paul's repairs and it would not be sufficient to pay for what needs to be done, and it would not take into consideration other congregations that need things," Edwards said.
But small as the parish is, Edwards said, it's a lively and energetic congregation that's looking for innovative ways to save the building. The church has a gift shop and accepts donations. Parishioners also are looking for ways to raise money, Curtis said.
"We have quite a few people coming up with ideas, brainstorming now, trying to come up with methods of doing it," Curtis said. "I don't think anyone knows what they will do yet. We hope down the road to come up with several ideas."
During the summer, Sundt and Ryan often stay after services to show around any tourists who venture in.
"We talk about the history and pray they will give us a dollar," Sundt said.
St. Paul's is important to the Episcopal Church, Edwards said, but it's also important to Nevada, Storey County and Virginia City.
"It's a historic monument and a tourist attraction," he said. "We hope to find ways people in the community, who may not be particularly religious, will want to support and preserve St. Paul's for its historical significance and as part of the Virginia City economy."
If St. Paul's goes, Ryan said, a part of the town goes.
"The old girl deserves a chance," she said.
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