A welcoming place since Sparta's infancy
In early 1857, the Rev. Benjamin Birmingham held the first Episcopal service in Sparta when he ministered to a gathering in the Union Block Building located on what is now South Water Street.
It's been over a century and a half since that service, but Sparta's Episcopal congregation is still going strong and will be celebrating its 160-year anniversary on Saturday, Sept. 16.
In keeping with its welcoming spirit that earned it the appellation the "Friendly Little Red Church on North Water Street", the congregation is opening the celebration to the entire community.
It will begin with an evening prayer at 4 p.m. The Right Reverend Bishop Jay Lambert of the Episcopal Diocese of Eau Claire will join St. John's resident pastor, Father Peter Augustine, who has been at the church for three years, and its deacon, Rev. Jo Glasser. That will be followed by a dinner and gathering in the church's community room. Bishop Lambert will be the celebrant at a mass the following day at 10 a.m.
St. John's Episcopal Church has the distinction of being the oldest church in Sparta. It was built in 1862 in the same location where it currently stands. However, the original chapel had to be razed in 1996 and a replica erected in its place.
While there is some dispute over whether the original structure was built in 1862 or 1863, congregation member Bob Hess insists the date is 1862, noting the church can be dated by the Civil War battle of Richmond.
That's because the priest who was there at the time decided that between the defeat at Richmond and the Sioux uprising against the Ho Chunks, Sparta was not a safe place to live and he moved to Philadelphia.
According to church lore, there was a hole in the old church where an arrow had pierced it. The original church was built as a temporary structure and didn't have windows. It was added on to over the years and still has the original stained glass windows that were added after the Civil War.
Members of the church fought in the Civil War and the Spanish American War as well as both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.
The first marriage at St. John's was performed June 5, 1867, and while life-long congregant Jan Isensee said she wasn't invited to that event, she does remember attending the church's 100th anniversary in 1857 when she was 10 years old.
"We had to dress up in old-fashioned clothes and it was so warm and the clothes were wool, " she recalled.
Another congregant, Phil Davis, is descended from one of the earliest families to settle Sparta. His great grandfather came to Sparta in 1863.
In fact, Davis, Isensee and Sandy Finch were raised in the church, and are its oldest continuous members. Finch's parents were DJ and Helen Betts, who owned Betts Yards & Cards years ago where the Sparta Grill is now located. They gave Isensee and her family a ride to church every Sunday because they didn't have a car.
It was that mindset among congregants of looking out for each other that contributes to one of St. John's most notable qualities -- its open-arms attitude.
"This church historically has welcomed anybody," said Hess, who joined the congregation after moving to Sparta in 1973 with his wife Linda to start Sparta Area Ambulance Service. "When I came to town if you had no church, this is the church you were buried from, and it still is."
He points out that all the funerals for the children interred in the Child Center Cemetery were performed by St. John's.
The church also was a soup kitchen in the Great Depression and served as a USO during the war. Finch said people met the loves of their life at the USO dances.
During the Korean War, black servicemen would bring their families to St. John's so their kids could play with youngsters from the congregation.
Even the Morrow Home has its roots in St. John's. Judge J. M. Morrow left his house to the church as a home for the elderly. It was called the Morrow Home and initially had only five residents. However, it's population grew and the small Episcopal congregation could no longer afford to maintain it. It was given to the Methodist Episcopal congregation and the expansive facility still exists on South Water Street.