On Easter Sunday, 1900, St. John's Episcopal Church welcomed its awed, joyous and thankful members into a new building. That structure had its visionary cornerstone laid more than fifty-five years earlier when The Right Reverend Leonidas Polk, Missionary Bishop of Arkansas, visited military Fort Smith and baptized two children of Major and Mrs. Elias Rector. This 1838 visit is the first known visitation of an official of the Episcopal Church to Fort Smith.
A new Bishop, George Washington Freeman, preached in Fort Smith on May 1, 1845, and later that year, he told missionary Reverend Charles C. Townsend of the need for a pastor in the little town at the fort. Together they journeyed from Little Rock to Fort Smith. After a service on Tuesday evening, November 25, the small group of Episcopalians then living there seemed pleased with their Bishop's choice, and Townsend was appointed as a missionary to the station on December 29, 1845.
Although the first sermon was delivered in the dining room of the City Hotel, owned by Captain John Rogers, subsequent services were conducted in the garrison where a spacious room was elegantly lotted with seats and a pulpit by the officers of the U.S. Army expressly for the fledgling Episcopalians.
Townsend stayed six years, moving in 1852 to Van Buren where he had taken up residence to serve as a missionary there. That left Fort Smith Episcopalians, known as "All Saints", without a missionary until 1859 when The Reverend William Binet assumed temporary charge. But it was only after the new Missionary Bishop of the southwest, Henry Champlin Lay, took up residence in Fort Smith that the Episcopalian's dreams met with their desires. At Bishop Lay's persuasion. The Reverend John Sandels was induced to come to Fort Smith to serve as the first rector of the parish being organized from the mission.
An actual church building heralded this new era for the congregation; completed in 1860, on land donated by George Birnie at the corner of the streets then known as Knox (now 6th) and Sycamore (now C). The modest frame building symbolized the decent, caring folk's determination to survive. There was even a church bell, a replica of the famous Liberty Bell, that called the faithful to worship amid the squalor of outlaws, prostitutes, and wandering strays from the nearby Indian territory...and the rising fears of a Civil War.
St. John's was closed during the war as The Reverend Mr. Sandels served as chaplain in the Confederate army. Fortunately Fort Smith was never a victim of any actual combat, but the town of divided loyalties lived with the turmoil of a "gentleman's war" as the command of the city changed with the results of outlying battles. Mr. Sandels returned to St. John's after the war and stayed until 1870.
Through the next 16 years, St. John's was home for a number of rectors. Additional property was bought for a rectory and like Fort Smith, the organization forged ahead with building lives that reflected their beliefs and values. To that end, it was the women of the church who worked to establish the precepts of their faith into the fabric of the community.
Newcomers flocked in daily a result of the war-broken nation, of new lands to settle and of fortunes to be made. They came to Fort Smith, the last outpost of civilization, and many stayed, afraid to venture further west and attracted to the little town that was trying so hard.
Judge Isaac C. Parker, a federal judge appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant, moved to Fort Smith in 1875, charged with bringing law and order to the Indian Nations to the west. His 200 marshals made a difference against the criminals who had invaded and established hideouts after the Civil War. Judge Parker was not a member of any denomination, but often quoted scripture and led a proper and respectable life. His professional life protected the citizens of Fort Smith and his personal one benefited the growth of the area as he worked with the leaders of the community to establish schools, hospitals and cultural events.
Into this environment, in January of 1886, came The Reverend George Degan who took over the reins of St. John's and with the assistance of the dedicated women of the church began to make a real mark in the city's future. With their assistance, Mr. Degen founded St. John's Hospital in 1887, the first hospital in this part of the state which was maintained for years until it merged with Belle Point Hospital, and later, Sparks Hospital, now Sparks Regional Medical Center. Judge Isaac C. Parker was the first president of the St. John's Hospital Board.
The women formed a church circle. "The B's" which began to raise money for a new church building, accumulating enough to buy adjacent property, build a rectory, and lay the foundation of the present church building. They also started the first "woman's Exchange" in town.
So it was that with a true frontier passion, forged by the trials of the times, that St. John's congregation held a joyful service in our present church building on that Easter Sunday of 1900 to mark, not only their spiritual commitment but also their unswayed determination lo bring their indomitable strength, their love of their church into the little town that sprang up from the site of a fort to become a civilized, God-fearing city which still remembers the sacrifices and offerings of those who came before and the dedicated contribution of St. John's Episcopal Church.
Free parking available on site.