In the early 1850s, California was a state with a widely scattered population and few small towns. The Episcopal Church was just being organized in the newly formed state. There were four congregations in the entire region: Holy Trinity Church and Grace Church in San Francisco, Grace Church in Sacramento, and St. John’s Church in Stockton.
The town of San Diego had never seen an Episcopal service, and no services of the Book of Common Prayer had yet been held in Los Angeles. But all that was about to change with the appointment of the Rev. John Reynolds as chaplain of the United States Army post at San Diego in December 1850.
In the spring of that year, Reynolds officiated for some time at St. John’s Church in Stockton, where his ministry was remembered with appreciation. The local newspaper, “San Joaquin Republican,” said in September 1853 that he was “the welcome guest at every house” and that “as a scholar he was admired, and as a minister of the Gospel was revered by every man.”
Episcopalians of San Diego were in need of spiritual guidance as well. Until that time, the only religious services available were those of the Roman Catholic Church, which celebrated mass in Spanish. Very few of the Anglo-American population spoke Spanish and had no options for church on Sunday. They spent their Sundays drinking, playing cards, billiards, and partaking in other amusements. “These amusements will now in a measure be dispensed with, as the Rev. Dr. Reynolds, Chaplain U. S. Army, will hereafter conduct Divine Service, at the Court House, in Old San Diego,” was reported in the “Herald,” San Diego’s first newspaper on July 9, 1853.
On July 10, 1853, Chaplain Reynolds conducted the first non-Roman service ever held in the community of San Diego and the first recorded Episcopal service in Southern California. The service was held at the small brick Court House on the corner of the plaza in Old Town.
The community was not only small; it was rough. The “Herald” gave a description of the situation, reporting that, “At the Court House where is conducted the Episcopal form of worship, an audience of over a dozen is rarely seen; while the quiet due to Sunday is broken upon by the rioting of the inebriated, and the very words of the holy writ are drowned by the click of billiard balls and the calls for cocktails from the adjacent saloon.”
Meanwhile, in New York, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church decided that California (a brand new state) needed a bishop. The Rev. William Ingraham Kip was elected as the Missionary Bishop of California. His consecration took place in Trinity Church, New York, on October 28.
Bishop Kip began the long journey to his new diocese. While sailing north from the city of Panama, on January 11, 1854, just three days north of Acapulco, Bishop Kip’s ship broke a drive-shaft. This accident greatly reduced their speed, and the delay cut down on food supplies.
Seven days later, on January 18, the ship made its way into the port at San Diego and took on a supply of beef. That afternoon, they left for San Francisco, with only one engine and wheel in order. Due to a seasonal storm, Bishop Kip’s ship ran aground near the mouth of San Diego Bay–near Point Loma. Nearly 1,000 passengers were taken off by steamers Goliah and Southerner. Bishop Kip, his wife, and younger son Willie were taken to Old Town, where Don Juan Bandini, a leading citizen of this part of California, offered them the hospitality of his home.
The bishop, in his later book, The Early Days of My Episcopate, gave a colorful description of the San Diego of that day. “San Diego is a little Spanish town of about a thousand inhabitants, built in a straggling style, and with a perfectly foreign air. The houses are mostly constructed of adobes…”
The next Sunday, January 22, 1854, “I was requested, by some of the residents, to hold service, and was, of course, happy to comply. We had the room used as the courtroom, which is occupied by Mr. Reynolds in the afternoon. There was no opportunity of giving much notice, and service was not expected, as Mr. Reynolds is never here in the morning; yet there were about fifty persons present, including several of the army officers and their families,” writes Bishop Kip.
So, due to unforeseen circumstances and a faithful Episcopal population in San Diego, Bishop Kip, the first Bishop of California, held his first service in his new diocese in the little town of San Diego.
Today the State of California is divided into six diocesan bodies. The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego stretches across San Diego, Riverside, Imperial, and Yuma counties and hosts thousands of worshipers every week.
This year, EDSD is celebrating 50 years as a diocese! And with over 170 years of Episcopal worship in the region, the faithful people of San Diego, Imperial, Riverside, and Yuma counties have a long history of bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ and sharing courageous love with the community around them.
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6 replies to “Our History: The Beginning”
Loved this story of our beginnings
In San Diego!! Thanks ♥️
A truthful understanding of our history is the key to transforming our present and future. This was an informative and inspiring beginning and I look forward to deeper and deeper dives into our history to provide that foundation. Thanks be to God!
Peace and blessings…….
Always love hearing about church history. Thank you for sharing.
As a relative newcomer to California (3 years), I love the opportunity to learn more of the history of the church in the region and state as a whole. Very interesting!
The Episcopal church was all over th Northwest! When we traveled in our motor home we visited many small churches… some with only a few parishioners… but lovely little buildings. They were there!
This glimpse of history is so vivid — helps me visualize our church and communities of 170 years ago. Our Episcopal beginnings in SoCal remind us how important it is that our Jesus journey meets the people where they are, where WE are. Thank you for this article!