The visitor had just arrived to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and was trying to describe the experience.
“Coming in that entrance, I felt like …” he started.
“Like Harry Potter?” Terry Roberts suggested.
Roberts and other members are well aware that their parish’s magnificent, fortress-like building at 1710 E. Superior St. evokes fantastical images of another time and another place. They even once hosted a Harry Potter event, said the Rev. Bill Van Oss, the church’s rector since 2006.
But as an earlier generation of Episcopalians contemplated building a new church home in the early 1900s, they had a slightly different thought in mind, Van Oss said.
“The story goes that the members wanted a proper English cathedral,” he said during a recent interview in the addition built as the parish house in 1928.
Van Oss was joined by Roberts and Bob Silverness, two members who have played key roles this year as St. Paul’s Episcopal celebrates its 150th anniversary as one of Duluth’s earliest churches and the first to have a building of its own.
That wooden structure, which opened its doors for worship for the first time on Christmas Day 1869, was located at Lake Avenue and Second Street. It’s the site of the present Harbor Pointe Credit Union.
Although Harry Potter’s name is jokingly linked to the present building, the original really did have a famous name attached to it. For a time, according to church archives, it was known as “Jay Cooke’s Church.”
“It was basically Jay Cooke who wanted to make sure there was a church here,” Silverness said. “He had done many churches out East as well.”
Cooke, the railway investor for whom Jay Cooke State Park is named, was an Episcopalian, Silverness said, as was his representative in Duluth. The original building likely was built entirely with money from the East, he said, and Cooke was certainly a major benefactor.
But by the early 1900s, local Episcopalians were ready to make a statement of their own. The land at 17th Avenue East and Superior Street was purchased in November 1909, according to church records. Less than two years later, Dr. A.W. Ryan, then the rector, and the church leadership announced they intended to erect a new building there at a cost of $115,000 — a little more than $3 million in today’s money.
But that understates the actual worth of the structure. Insurers estimate the replacement cost in the tens of millions of dollars, Van Oss said.
In reality, irreplaceable is the word that comes to mind. If a building’s interior can evoke holiness, the nave of St. Paul’s — where congregants sit — seems to achieve that. The high vaulted ceiling extends high above them, and they’re surrounded by stained glass windows.
“The sermon that the rector preached at the opening service of this building is just magnificent,” Van Oss said. “(He said ) we finally have a proper church in which to worship God.”
The church was designed by New York architect Bertram Goodhue, who also designed the Kitchi Gammi Club and the Hartley Building in the 700 block of East Superior Street, among others. In New York, his work includes St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue.
That they could build such an edifice speaks to the fact that there were wealthy Episcopalians in Duluth in the early 1900s. But Roberts said it also speaks to their values.
“I think the cool thing is that they had money, and they thought it was important to have a beautiful church,” she said. “They could have made a lot of other choices.”
Although it’s easy to get caught up in the building, Van Oss and members say they’re more focused on the church’s service to the community. That stems at least back to 1881, when church members founded the city’s first hospital — St. Luke’s — in what had been a blacksmith’s shop.
More recently, Roberts said, when the church launched a capital campaign 30 years ago for major building renovations, it chose to “tithe” that money — give 10% — to meet needs in the neighborhood. When Hmong refugees came to Duluth, the church was active in providing help, she said.
The church also started a day care and participates in the work of the Loaves and Fishes Catholic worker community, which is based nearby, Van Oss said.
Combined attendance at the church’s two Sunday services averages about 175, Van Oss said, and more than 100 children and youth are involved in church programs one way or another.
All of this perhaps explains why church leaders are a bit casual about when their church actually began. Episcopalian roots in Duluth trace back at least to 1866, when Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple, known as an advocate for Ojibwe and Dakota people, paid a visit. Church archives suggest the real beginning was on Aug. 8, 1869, when Duluth’s Presbyterians invited the Episcopalians to hold services in the schoolhouse they had been using.
Although the church is having its major celebration this coming weekend, Van Oss said that’s because it’s the weekend that worked out the best for the most people. The date itself isn’t significant.
“We’re celebrating the year more than the day,” Roberts said.
Whenever it began, the church’s ongoing work is clear, Van Oss said.
“(We’ll) continue to spread the goodness and love of God in every way possible in a world that desperately needs it,” he said. “Our theme is, ‘Called to the way of love.’ We hope that we are shaping and forming people in Christ’s love so that we can be agents of that love when we go out into the world.”
If you go
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1720 E. Superior St., is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a number of special observances this coming weekend. A couple of the events require reservations. For details, check the church’s website at stpaulsfaithformation.org.
At Sunday’s 10 a.m. service, the guest preacher will be the Most Rev. Mark MacDonald, a son of the church and currently archbishop of the National Indigenous Anglican Church of Canada.
The church’s regular worship schedule is a traditional service at 8 a.m. and the main service at 10 a.m. Sundays and an informal service at 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays.