Now that more than five years have passed since my arrival in this country, as I look back upon them, how many of my most pleasing associations centre in Grace Church! It is to me the most home-like place in California.
At the first settlement of the country, when the Rev. Mr. Mines came across the Isthmus, the Rev. Dr. Ver Mehr, at the same time, arrived by the way of Cape Horn. Each had his friends and supporters, and each party commenced the formation of a congregation. It was a sad) mistake, the effects of which the Church in this city feels to the present day. There should have been but one congregation, instead of two, which divided the energies of the Church. I have already mentioned the founding of Trinity Church by Mr. Mines. He was a man of energy and talents, and nothing but his failing health and early death prevented the accomplishment of all his hopes.
Dr. Ver Mehr, too, was a man of talents, highly accomplished, and particularly skilled as a linguist. He was, however, a Belgian, and had never acquired the English language sufficiently to succeed as a preacher. He was a fine writer, and his sermons delivered by any one else would have been very impressive, but owing to his German accent, it was difficult to keep the thread of his discourse.
About 1849, in the first outbreak of the California excitement, I happened to be staying with Bishop Doane at "Riverside," when one evening, Dr. Ver Mehr, then one of the teachers at St. Mary's Hall, came in to inform the Bishop, that he proposed going to California. I listened to the discussion which followed, without having any idea that I should ever be personally interested in the matter. I remember, however, that the Bishop strongly urged him not to attempt it. He stated to him, that he was not personally adapted to a new country, nor was his style of scholarship that which was needed here. In fact, he prophesied to him exactly the result which afterwards happened.
Grace Church was "built in troublous times," in Powell Street, but unfortunately not paid for. For some years there was a constant struggle, and Grace Church was always in the field begging money, either by subscription papers, or though the medium of fairs. Every little while it would be in the hands of the sheriff. The result was, that the fine lot which the church owned, and which, had it been preserved intact, would have been a splendid site for a larger church when prosperous times came, was pared down, and all of it sold but the ground under the wooden church and the rectory next door, at the corner. To gather a permanent congregation seemed out of the question.
In the meanwhile, Dr. Ver Mehr and his family had an equally hard struggle for existence. The church in its depressed condition, could not afford to give them a support, and for several years they endeavored to make up the deficiency by the varying success of a school. At length, the whole matter--church and school--was given up in despair, and they retired to Sonoma, where they opened a Female Seminary, principally for boarders.
This withdrawal took place about four months before my arrival. From that time, of course, the condition of the church was looked upon as hopeless.
There was generally a Morning Service on Sundays, by the Rev. Orange Clark, D.D., (who had come out as Chaplain of the U. S. Marine Hospital), but there was no Pastor, and in fact scarcely any congregation. Most of those who felt any interest in the Church had joined Trinity.
On the second Sunday morning after my arrival I officiated in Grace Church, Dr. Clark reading prayers. There was a full congregation, drawn together, of course, by curiosity, as scarcely any of them belonged there. Outside of the building, the appearance of things was desolate enough. Powell Street had not yet been graded, and the church, instead of standing as it now does, several feet below the street, was then some distance above it. In front a deep gully intersected Powell Street at right angles, through which a small stream of water flowed. The church was therefore only accessible in Powell Street, from the South, and in rainy weather, there being no planking, hardly accessible at all, as there was danger of being mired. On the corner was the rectory--a miserable little shanty. It was shortly after leased for five years to Mr. Vandewater, who, at great expense to himself, transformed it into a tasteful cottage and subsequently purchased it.
That week, the two wardens, Judge Wilde, formerly of Georgia, and Dr. Tripler, chief of the Medical Staff, U. S. Army, on this coast, came to invite me to take the Rectorship. I asked them the state of the congregation, when the Doctor, with a quiet smile, replied, "There are twenty people inside, and the sheriff at the door." This I subsequently found to be exactly the case. After considerable discussion with the Vestry, I at length agreed to take the church, while out of deference to Dr. Ver Mehr he was retained as Assistant Minister, a certain portion of the income of the church, when it should have any, being allotted to him.
Thus I commenced my new Rectorship. After a short time the debt was paid, and the church filled up, so that a competent support was assured to a Hector. At first, I held service in the morning and afternoon, but soon found that the habits of the people would make it impossible to gather a congregation in the afternoon. I was obliged, therefore, to have an evening service, and I think that at the present time there is not in the city any religious service on Sunday afternoon. For about a year Dr. Ver Mehr remained as Assistant Minister, though living at Sonoma. During that time he came to San Francisco several times to officiate for me on Sunday, when I was obliged to be absent from the city. This, however, was inconvenient, and as, in the meanwhile, other clergymen had come to the Diocese, so that I could get an occasional supply elsewhere, his connection with the church was dissolved at the end of the first year.
From this time, until my return East, in April, 1857, this was the scene of my labors when I could spare time from other parts of the Diocese. And of all the twenty years which I spent as a Pastor, there are none to which I look back with so much unalloyed pleasure as to the three and a half years' Rectorship in Grace Church, with a magnanimous Vestry and a kind and generous congregation. The entire period was marked by unbroken harmony.
Our communicants increased in number to about one hundred and fifty, and for some time there were more than twenty families on the sexton's list, waiting for pews. For a long while I had been confident, that by building a large church, so that more room could be afforded, and the pew rents so reduced as to bring them within the means of many who could not take them at the present rates, the congregation could be doubled. In this opinion the Vestry agreed, and a lot -was purchased at the corner of Stockton and Sacramento Streets, where it was expected that a new edifice would be erected in the spring and summer of 1857. Unfortunately, however, after one half the purchase money had been paid, it was discovered that the title was defective. The difficulties accompanying this were very depressing and delayed the undertaking two years.
In the spring of 1857, it became necessary that I should go East, and I accordingly sailed on the 20th of April. On the Sunday before, I ordained Ferdinand C. Ewer to the Diaconate, and as he was the only clergyman unemployed, I left him in charge of the church. It was not until the middle of December that I returned, but during all this time I had most encouraging reports of Mr. Ewer's success in keeping up the congregation. On my return, therefore, I resigned the Rectorship, and left the charge entirely to him.
Since then the course of the parish has been prosperous. A lot has been purchased on the corner of Stockton and California Streets, which is now excavating for the foundations of the new church. In a few months this will probably be rising, the most beautiful church edifice on the Pacific coast, and I trust that within the coming spring and summer the congregation will begin within its walls a new career of prosperity. Yet, then, the old church will be swept away, and with it, so many pleasant associations of my early years in California.