“If you don't know history, you don’t know much of anything. You’re like a leaf that didn't know it was part of a tree.”
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by Matthew P. Payne. Parish Archivist
The roots of St. Thomas extend back to November, 1857, when the first Episcopal services were held in Menasha by the Reverend Charles C. Edmonds who came here once a month for the first six months, and later twice a month to conduct services and organize the people of his faith. In August, 1858, he moved to Menasha to become the first resident Episcopal minister.
During Easter week of 1859, an organization was perfected and incorporated as "St. Stephen's Episcopal Church" and on September 13, 1859, ground was broken for the first permanent house of worship. Bishop Jackson Kemper, the first Bishop of the Diocese of Wisconsin, came to lay the cornerstone on September 20, 1859. The building was erected largely through the generosity of Captain L. B. MacKinnon of the British Royal Navy. The first services were held in the building on April 28, 1861, although it was still in an unfinished state. Located on First Street near Appleton Street until 1888, it was moved to 408 Broad Street.
Some missionaries conducted occasional services in Neenah in an effort to organize a parish, but it was not until the Reverend William Christian came in 1866 to be resident pastor of St. Stephen's that the parish of Trinity Episcopal Church in Neenah was organized. In November, 1868, members of Trinity parish voted to construct a building which was started in August, 1869 at 134 East Franklin Avenue (at Walnut Street).
During these formative years, both Churches were served by the same Rector, but many came and went, some remaining but a few months. When the new Diocese of Fond du Lac was erected out of the Diocese of Wisconsin (which became the Diocese of Milwaukee in 1888), both congregations were admitted into union with the Diocese.
In 1900, St. Stephen's was active and vital with a membership of 30 families and 75 baptized persons. Trinity had been closed and only occasional services were held there. In 1903, Trinity’s doors were reopened, but it closed again in 1906.
During this period, St. Stephen's flourished with a membership considerably bolstered by members from Trinity. St. Stephen's purchased a guild home and rectory at First and Milwaukee Streets in 1907. In 1910, Trinity’s doors were once again opened and the building was moved in 1912 from Franklin Avenue and Walnut Streets to 229 East Wisconsin Avenue.
By 1914, Trinity was experiencing a healthy new growth, but St. Stephen's was struggling with a membership decreased by the withdrawal of Trinity members. With the realization that neither parish could be satisfactorily developed without cooperation and united effort, a mutual project dawned upon both congregations and the seeds for a united Church germinated.
As the two congregations both struggled separately to exist, by the late 1900’s, there were many informal discussions of uniting these two existing parishes so a strong, united Episcopal Church serving the two towns might come about. In 1914, a consolidation committee from the two parishes was elected. This committee met every Sunday morning from fall 1914 through Spring 1915 in the Directors' Room of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation.
The first union service was held on a bitterly cold Christmas Day, 1914, in St. Stephen’s, Menasha. The Very Rev. Benjamin Talbot Rogers, Archdeacon of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, conducted the service with a large congregation in attendance.
In early 1915 part of what would become the property of the St. Thomas we know today was purchased on Washington Street, Menasha. The location was desirable as it was near the Neenah-Menasha boundary line. The existing Miner H. Ballou home would become a rectory and parish hall for church building to be built next to it. Mr. Ballou had been Treasurer of the Menasha Paper Company. Perhaps predicting things to come, Miss Belle Ballou, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ballou, married Arnold Knuppel, son of Mayor and Mrs. Knuppel of Appleton in the home in June, 1914.Easter Day, April 4, 1915, was the second union service in Trinity Church, Neenah. Archdeacon Rogers again officiated and conducted the first official annual meeting of the new congregation. Wardens and Vestry were elected so an official and duly elected group of men might proceed in making plans for the church building. Remember at this time women were not able to be elected, although we will see that the contribution of the women was as important as these elected men, and maybe even more so. Those elected were Mr. F.D. Lake, Senior Warden; Mr. Harry Price, Junior Warden; Messrs. J. C. Kimberly, J. M. Pleasants, Harold S. Lyons, George L. Madson, D.T.H. MacKinnon, A. M. Little, and S. H. Clinedinst, members of the Vestry. Mr. E. M. Beeman was elected treasurer, and Mr. William G. Trilling, clerk of the Vestry. At it’s founding, St. Thomas Church contained 200 baptized members, 85 communicants, 75 family groups and 40 enrolled in church school. A solid foundation from which to begin moving forward.
Along with elections, the congregation ratified the purchase of the Ballou property and moving forward with plans for the new church building. The property of St. Stephen’s, Menasha and Trinity, Neenah were both sold. The St. Stephen's building was remodeled into a house and is currently an assisted living home. The Trinity building was purchased and used by the Christian Scientists until they tore it down in 1955 for a new building.
The new Vestry began by soliciting funds, seeking an architect and considering a name for the new congregation. The first contributor to the building fund was Mrs. M.P. Haynes who gave $500 (about $11,000 in 2010 dollars). She was ninety years old and died before the new building was finished.
At a meeting on July 4, 1915, the Reverend Herbert A. Wilson of Danbury, Connecticut, was elected first Rector of the new congregation and arrived on September. Services during this period were being held at the Menasha Public Library every Sunday. The articles of incorporation were drawn up and the name “St. Thomas” chosen, partially in deference to the beauty of St. Thomas Church on 5th Avenue in mid-town Manhattan, New York City.
Excavating for the new church building began in September, 1915. The building was to cost approximately $12,000 (about $250,000 in 2010 dollars). The cornerstone was laid by the Rt. Rev. Reginald H. Weller, Third Bishop of Fond du Lac, on October 10, 1915. It was hoped that the building would he finished for Christmas Services in 1915, however the building was ready for occupancy on January 16, 1916.
A worshipping community, an organization, a name, a building and a priest. In just two short years, St. Thomas was well on its way to beginning its chapter of spreading the Gospel.
During spring of 1916, the effort was made to pay for the church building completely so it could be consecrated. Episcopal church buildings cannot be dedicated until they’re free from debt. This goal was achieved in short order and an impressive service of dedication giving was held on May 14, 1916. Bishop Reginald Weller, Third Bishop of Fond du Lac, officiated and. Additionally in 1916 the Rectory, the former Ballou home, was remodeled for living space upstairs and a Parish House downstairs.
During this first year of the congregation’s life, 12 persons were baptized, 7 adults confirmed and 30 communicants added to the parish list.
The first Rector served only six months leaving in March, 1917 for a congregation in Detroit, Michigan. The second Rector, the Rev. William G. Studwell of Chicago, began service in May, 1917.
In November 1917 a barn in back of the new church building was remodeled and expanded for a meeting hall for the various organizations and guilds. In 1919, 45 feet of land south of the church building, part of the Sanford property, was purchased edging the property closer to the Neenah/Menasha line and allowing for future expansion.
Mr. Harry Price, a member of the parish, represented the Diocese of Fond du Lac in 1919 at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. He returned inspired and with an enthusiasm for missionary work. Because of his fervor, $1,062.25 (about $12,000 in 2011 dollars) was given directly to missions in 1920, a 400% increase from 1919. Supporting missionary work has long been an important part of the life of St. Thomas.
The life of St. Thomas mirrored broader society in the 1920’s. It began with a call to the Rev. Raymond A. Heron as its third Rector. One of the first things Fr. Heron did, which “startled” the Vestry, was inform them the work he wished to do with youth in the parish and the community would require use of the entire parish house and rectory so he would not live there.
He was right. The decade saw a three-fold growth in Church School attendance, the formation of a Boy Scout troop, a Girl Scout Troop, and a Junior Boys Club. Responding to the need, a new gymnasium and guild hall were built. A playground was added and property was purchased on the other side of Lake Winnebago for the Scouts to use, with a cabin soon built. By involving young people in the work of the Church, St. Thomas grew quickly.
The St. Agnes Guild raised funds to pay off the organ, as they committed to at the parish’s founding. The church paper was begun to help keep people informed.
In the middle of the decade, Fr. Heron moved on and the Rev. A. Gordon Fowkes was called to serve as fourth Rector and continued to move ahead. In 1928, the first candidate for Holy Orders from St. Thomas, Albert J. DuBois, Jr., entered studies at General Theological Seminary in New York City.
Growth in members also saw growth in assets. Mr. and Mrs. Harry Price took the opportunity to give in response to God’s grace, establishing an endowment for the parish with $10,000 (about $125,000 in 2011 dollars). After a little over a decade of existence, the foundation of St. Thomas Church was firm and serving the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
As the decade of the Great Depression began, the congregation was saddened by the deaths of a number of primary actors in the formation of St. Thomas. The legacy these “founders” left was a new parish community formed by the juncture of two others, bequests the removed all debt of the congregation and memorials that led to the installation of stained glass windows. The women of the parish stepped forward to improve the worship space when they purchased new lights for the church building (there was dissatisfaction with the old system). Along with a number of others, the St. Agnes’ Guild also funded two stained glass windows.
Albert J. Dubois, Jr., a St. Thomas member, was ordained to the Diaconate in St. Thomas' on April 12, 1931.
As the Great Depression gripped the country, St. Thomas continued to experience growth. By 1932, membership had grown to 135 family groups and 240 communicants. The congregation continued to give significantly to missionary causes.
When the Vestry called the Rev. Malcolm J. Van Zandt to be Rector in 1932, he became active in community affairs and was one time president of the Twin City Ministerial Association. In 1936, the Reverend Albert A. Chambers was called to be Rector.
By the end of the decade and after twenty-five years, the parish had been fruitful both in giving and growing in the life of the Spirit. Family groups increased to 210, confirmed persons to 368, and Church School membership to 169. Over twenty-five years and counter to the effects of the Depression, this faith community more than doubled the number of family units and almost tripled the number of baptized members.
In 1940, St. Thomas celebrated its 25th anniversary with the realization that many individuals, through personal sacrifice, enthusiasm and devotion, had nourished the 1ife and work of the parish in the community and the Diocese. Additionally, a sense of expectation developed, with the hope that St. Thomas would become a more effective instrument of God in a spiritually hungry world.
Over the course of six years, St. Thomas would change as society changed during the Second World War, but its history of outreach would continue as strong as ever. A significant change occurred in 1939 when the number of Sunday Services went from two to three: 8:00am, 9:30am and 11:30am. Attendance had grown to the point where seating was getting a little tight.
In the years just prior to the US entry into WWII, life continued normally. 4 furnaces for the church building and Parish House were replaced. The St. Thomas Guild made quilts to give to those in need. The Sunday Church School raised funds to purchase a stained glass window. The Young People’s Fellwoship (Y.P.F.) hosted youth groups from Trinity, Oshkosh and All Saints, Appleton for get-togethers. Carl J. Wazerman, then Dean of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, became St. Thomas’ Choir Director.
With the changes that came from U.S. involvement in WWII came changes at St. Thomas. The next Rector, Herman Berngen was called to be Rector and would serve until 1945. During that time he took the lead as chair of the diocesan Forward in Service campaign, was elected to the diocesan Executive Board and participated in a number of diocesan preaching missions. St. Thomas served as host for the Diocesan Council in 1943.
On the congregational level, St. Anne’s Guild sewed items for the Red Cross. A number of parishioners both gave generously and helped to raise funds for War Bonds and Stamps. Perhaps most significant, although driven by the need to conserve gas and not necessarily any theological reason, the time for Sunday Church School was shifted so that the children joined to adults for church. Prior to this, children and adults were separated (segregated?) for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
By the end of WWII, society had seen significant shifts and changes. St. Thomas had too. There was a much greater awareness of community of many members making up the Body of Christ.
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