Christ Church's History
The history of Christ Episcopal Church is as old as the city of La Crosse, and in fact pre-dates the founding of the city. The first Christian worship service was conducted on June 23rd, 1850 by famed Episcopal missionary James Lloyd Breck (known as "The Apostle of the Wilderness") on Granddad's Bluff. And since that first service in the wildness, on bluffs overlooking an untamed prairie to today's Smartphones and computers, the Episcopal community has been an integral part of La Crosse's history.
Early History (1849-1897)
Today a plaque on the Granddad's Bluff Overlook commemorates the first Christian worship service in the area that would become La Crosse. This first service was conducted by an Episcopalian missionary, the famous Apostle of the Wilderness, James Lloyd Breck. Breck was travelling from eastern Wisconsin to Minnesota when he stopped in "the hamlet of Prairie La Crosse" and celebrated the first service. We are fortunate to have an excerpt from Breck's diary recording this service,
"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."
Christ Episcopal Church continues honor the legacy of "The Apostle of the Wilderness", along with the first Bishop of Wisconsin Terroritory (Bishop Jackson Kemper) with a plaque in the church, behind the piano's current location. Next to the plaques there is a candle that burns in constant memory of both men's devotion to our church and those in our midst that we would be that beacon on the hill for the greater La Crosse community.
Breck's hamlet of "Prairie La Crosse" grew rapidly and by 1856, Bishop Kemper was persuaded to establish a parish in La Crosse. To provide leadership to this project he sent to La Crosse the Reverend Fayette Durlin, Christ Church's first rector. Because of the economic upheaval of the late 1850s Father Durlin was unable to accomplish his dream of building a church, so members met in each other's homes. He was, however, able to preside at the official incorporation of Christ Church on February 10, 1857, signing the incorporation documents along with a small group of Christ Church lay leaders.
Seven years after incorporating Christ Church, the original church building was completed in 1863, during the heart of the US Civil War. The building was located at 9th and Main Streets, the site of our current church. This neo-Gothic structure cost $700.00 to build was made of wood. The building also hosted La Crosse's first pipe organ and the first boy's choir in the state, reflective of the rich musical tradition that continues today. For 40 years this church served the rapidly growing La Crosse community but by 1897 it was too small to accommodate the needs of the Episcopal community so church leadership passed a resolution on April 5th, 1897 to construct a new church, which is our current building.
The Past and Present History (1897-Today)
Factors outside La Crosse influenced the design of the "new" church building. Wisconsin's Episcopal community had grown in the late 1800s and it was decided to create a new diocese in the northern and western portions of the state. La Crosse was considered a potential location for new diocese's headquarters so the new church was constructed along the lines of a cathedral, as benefiting a bishop's seat. As a result, Christ Church contains elements normally found in a cathedral, such as the prominent bishop's spire and throne in the sanctuary.
The church was designed by the renowned architect M.S. Detweiler. However, he died before the project could be completed so his daughter, one of the few female architects in the country, took over the completion of the new Christ Church, which was finished in 1899. The church was constructed from local stone quarried from surrounding bluffs, including Grandad's, the site of Breck's first service. Externally it was created in the Romanesque Revival style which mirrors many famous European churches. Also like many historic churches, Christ Church is laid out in the shape of a cross that is visible from the air. Internally the church was constructed in the Venetian Renaissance style which was popular at the time period.
We are blessed with a stunning sanctuary which showcases artwork spanning fifteen decades of ministry. We believe in the power and holiness of religious art. In 2005 we fully restored our ‘Transfiguration of Christ’ stained-glass Tiffany window. Two prominent windows were dedicated to the memory of founders Angus Cameron and Frank Hixon. The Hixon’s later bought land adjacent to Grandad bluff to preserve it as a public park and forest. The Cameron family dedicated a public park downtown which now serves as a farmer’s market featuring locally sourced foods. We are faithful stewards of La Crosse’s rivers, bluffs and trails, preserving them for future generations. We share our love of Christ, his children, art, music and nature. Our goal is to thrive into the next century by being the hands and face of Christ in our community.
More contemporary needs for office and gathering spaces necessitated the construction of Vinter Hall in 1962 to house church offices, meeting and Sunday school rooms, and, eventually, an elevator. The size and practicality of this facility have allowed the church to host various community and charity organizations as well as to accommodate diocesan conventions and parish meetings.
The beauty of the past surrounds and inspires us as we continue the wonderful legacy of those who have shaped Christ Episcopal Church's history. We hope that you can join us in writing the next chapter in Christ Church's history.