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Our History 

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help
...

Beauty surrounds and inspires worship in Christ Church.
Our founders’ legacy is a vibrant history of service to the Lord and this community.

We welcome everyone to join our efforts to continue a mission begun in 1850,
nearly 50 years before this “sermon in stone” was built.

Early years (1849-1897)
The Episcopal faith has been part of La Crosse history since Holy Communion was first celebrated high above an untamed prairie beside the Mississippi. Before the city was founded, the first Christian worship service in this area was conducted on Grandad Bluff by James Lloyd Breck. “The Apostle of the Wilderness” was on his way from eastern Wisconsin to Minnesota. His diary records:

"We spent the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (June 23rd) at Prairie La Crosse-- a hamlet of fifteen or twenty houses. We held service, and celebrated the Holy Communion in the morning, on a bluff about two miles back of the landing. In the afternoon we held a service by the river side, at the house of a German named Levy.

 

The next morning we paddled a canoe over the river, some distance above La Crosse, and there kept the Feast of St. John the Baptist. And there, for the first time, the Associate Mission for Minnesota stood on the soil of Minnesota. A rustic Cross was reared beneath a large and spreading elm tree; and the stone on which the elements were consecrated was the same thin slab of limestone that the day before served as an altar on Altar Rock, back of La Crosse landing.

 

In the afternoon we held another service at La Crosse, baptized a child, and gave the Holy Communion to four German Lutherans.

Reverend Breck and Jackson Kemper, the first Bishop of Wisconsin Territory, believed Christ Church would be a beacon on the hill for the greater La Crosse community.

 

By 1856, the rapid growth of Prairie La Crosse persuaded Bishop Kemper to establish a parish, led by Reverend Fayette Durlin. Current economic upheaval delayed church-building, so members met in each other’s homes.The church was incorporated on Feb. 10, 1857.

 

During the Civil War, a wooden Neo-Gothic church was built at 9th and Main for $700 in 1863. It housed the city’s first pipe organ and the state’s first boys’ choir. These early efforts launched the rich musical tradition that continues today.As La Crosse rapidly expanded, the congregation outgrew its first home in less than 35 years. On April 5, 1897, church leaders resolved to build the church that stands at 9th and Main today.

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This plaque on a pillar of limestone in a park on Grandad's Bluff commemorates Reverend Breck's first worship service.

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The original wooden Neo-Gothic Church at 9th and Main

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From past to present

Factors far beyond La Crosse influenced the look and
layout o
f the new sanctuary. The state’s expanding Episcopal community prompted formation of a northwestern diocese. As a potential site for its headquarters, Christ Church was built along the lines of a cathedral. Features appropriate for a bishop’s seat were included, such as a prominent spire and a throne in the sanctuary. 


M.S. Detweiler, an architect from Columbus, Ohio, designed the church but died during its construction. Cleora (aka Cleoria) Bacheller - the only female building contractor in Wisconsin and one of few in that trade in the country - guided the project to completion in 1899.


Rough cut, buff-colored limestone quarried for walls and a massive tower came from surrounding bluffs, including Grandad Bluff, the site of Breck's service. Columns, arches, and other decorative trim were carved from red Michigan sandstone.


Christ Church is laid out in the shape of a cross. Its Romanesque Revival style mirrors famous European churches. The Venetian Renaissance style of the interior was popular in the 1890s. The church was also noted for its extensive electrical system and lighting at that time. 

Stained glass artistry surrounds worship

For decades, Christ Church has housed a celebration of scripture wrought in glass and metal by American artisans. A dramatic interpretation of Christ’s transfiguration dominates a south transept window. It was designed by Tiffany Glass and Decorating of New York in 1898. Senator Angus Cameron’s wife (herself a famous local advocate of women’s rights) donated this stunning work to honor her late husband.


In 2005, the multi-layered window was removed, piece by
piece, and driven to a Virginia art glass studio for restoration. Thick plywood filled the space for many months. After the window was reinstalled, sunlight once more revealed details that had been obscured by soot, dust, and many a Wisconsin winter.


Directly across the sanctuary, the Beatitudes are depicted in hues of deep blue and red leaded stained glass in the north transept. This window was designed by the firm of Charles J. Connick of Boston. It was donated by Mrs. Frank P. Hixon in memory of her husband, a vestryman of the church and a local leader in the lumber industry.


Both families were equally interested in natural beauty.
The Hixon family bought land adjacent to Grandad Bluff
to preserve it as a public park and forest. The Camerons dedicated a downtown public park where a farmers’ market now offers locally produced foods in season. 

Accommodating a modern congregation

Increased demand for more modern space and facilities led to construction of Vinter Hall in 1962. It houses church offices, meeting and Sunday school rooms, and an elevator. This addition made it possible for Christ Church to host community organizations and charities, events, concerts, parish meetings, and diocesan conventions.

 

Renovation of the undercroft (the church’s lower level) and kitchen in 2005-2006 improved its capacity for events, hospitality, and fellowship. The Undercroft Gallery displays local artists’ work as well as icons painted by those seeking to experience the spiritual benefits of that ancient art.

As faithful stewards of this landmark, as well as the rivers and bluffs that have drawn people to this valley for more than 200 years, Christ Church members support all efforts to protect and preserve these treasures. By serving as the hands, hearts, and faces of Christ in everyday life, we will help La Crosse thrive for generations to come.

Early 20th century postcard featuring Christ Church

The Cameron Window

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The Hixon Beatitudes Window

Hmong story cloths on display in the Undercroft Gallery 

Christ Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 15, 1985. 

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A view of La Crosse today from the overlook on Grandad Bluff.                                                     Photo by Roger A. Grant

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