Parish shares Laramie’s rich history
LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — One of the first things people see when they pull into Laramie and drive along Third Street is the towering clock steeple of the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral, a religious institution nearly as old as the city.
St. Matthew celebrated its 150-year anniversary this month. The cathedral named after the biblical disciple, has been the religious home of many historical figures of Laramie and continues to serve the community.
FOUNDING AND EARLY YEARS
Dan Nelson, a parishioner of St. Matthew’s and local historian, said the first Episcopalian service was Sept. 13, 1868. An Episcopal Missionary in Cheyenne, the Rev. Joseph Cook, conducted the first service in Laramie Hall. The first resident rector was the Rev. John Cornell who performed his first service Nov. 29, 1868, in the dining room of the Laramie Hotel.
Edward and Jane Ivinson were early supporters of the church, Nelson said. Jane was the one who arranged for a rector to come and perform services in Laramie, according to historical documents. Jane had also arranged to start a Sunday school the first week of September 1868. Edward dressed up as Santa Claus on Christmas that year and would continue to as a yearly tradition. He would also serve as the church’s first senior warden.
“When we held services, we had no permanent place, so any store room offered us, we would take and fix it up as much like a church with our scanty material as possible,” Jane wrote to the Laramie Woman’s Club in 1899.
The first permanent structure was a wooden church. The lot was purchased from the Union Pacific Railroad for $1, Nelson said. The cornerstone was laid on Ascension Day, May 6, 1869. The church was used until the completion of the cathedral in 1896.
The first bishop of the Missionary District of Wyoming and Idaho was the Rt. Rev. Ethelbert P.E. Talbot. He designated Laramie as the see for the district. A see is the home church a bishop presides from in the Episcopal Church.
BEFORE THE TURN OF THE CENTURY
The vestry, the governing body of the church, wanted to build a stone structure using material that was offered for free by the Union Pacific Railroad. However, they could not get free transportation for the stones. Work eventually began on the Cathedral in May 1892, and on St. Matthew’s Day, Sept. 21, 1892, the cornerstone was laid.
The original cathedral did not have the imposing towers or steeple one can see today. A lack of funding had prevented the completion of the towers, Nelson said.
Jane fell ill in 1914 and died the following year. After the death of his wife, Edward continued the philanthropic life the two of them had previously led.
He donated $50,000 and the land to found a new hospital in memory of his wife, Ivinson Memorial Hospital.
He also provided money to complete the cathedral, Nelson said.
Through his financial support, the towers and steeple were completed along with the clock and a set of bells. The church’s exterior was power washed in 1968, as part of the church’s centennial celebration. Accumulation of soot from the coal-fired trains caused a contrast between the new and old construction.
In his wife’s memory, Edward also paid for the installation of two of the large stained-glass windows one can still see in the cathedral.
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church was the parish of several historic members of Laramie’s history. One can see their names on several of the streets, buildings and institutions in Laramie.
Arriving in Laramie the same year as the Ivinsons was Stephen Downey, a Civil War veteran and a lawyer. According to historical documents, Downey was the first Albany County prosecuting attorney. He also served as the president of the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees from 1891-1897. Downey served as a legislator as a member of the Territorial Legislature and as a territorial representative in the U.S. Congress. He paid for one of the stained-glass windows currently installed within St. Matthew’s.
ST. MATTHEW’S IN THE 20TH CENTURY
The parish continued to grow and add additional buildings to the cathedral close. A close is the land the cathedral and related buildings reside on. The St. Matthew’s Cathedral Close is a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
Women across Wyoming donated a memorial in 1924 for the Episcopalians who fought and died in World War I. The memorial still stands on church grounds. The memorial originally had 4 bronze statues on it, the patron saint of warriors Archangel St. Michael, an aviator, a sailor and an infantryman. Today, only St. Michael and the aviator remain.
The Cathedral Home for Children was originally on the St. Matthew’s close. It was incorporated in 1910 and resided in the bishop’s house. The orphanage moved through a couple of buildings until it moved to its current location in 1973.
One of the buildings still standing on the close is Hunter Hall. It was originally named Sherwood Hall, named after John Sherwood, the father of the Mary Sherwood Blodgett, a woman of means who donated the money for the building. The building was originally a boarding school for boys, Nelson said. It was a way for families in the rural communities to send their children to Laramie so they could receive an education.
Edward gave his mansion to the Diocese of Wyoming to create the Jane Ivinson Memorial School for Girls in 1921. The school was discontinued in 1958 after rural transportation became more reliable, Nelson said.
In 1930, the Cathedral Home for Children moved to Sherwood Hall. Later, the building was renamed as Hunter Hall, in honor of the first bishop of the Diocese of Wyoming, the Rt. Rev. J. Wilson Hunter.
In 1924, the first noncommercial radio station in Wyoming began to broadcast from St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral, Nelson said. KFBU, the radio station, was located in the basement. A steel tower was erected on the rear of the cathedral and another on Hunter Hall.
The very first broadcast was an address given by Nellie Tayloe Ross, Wyoming’s governor and the first female in the nation to serve in the office. Nelson said a memorable broadcast was the University of Wyoming’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. The after the broadcast, a telegram was received from the historic Bucket of Blood Saloon in Medicine Bow. It read, “Program came in fine. None of the boys moved for two hours.”
Nelson said the church held a memorial service for Matthew Shepard. While the main service happened in Casper, St. Matthew’s held one in Laramie at the same time. Shepard was an openly gay UW student who was murdered in October 1998.
Rev. Stephen Askew leads the parish in service on Sunday mornings as a Dean. A Dean is a rector who serves in a cathedral, but is not the bishop. In 2002, Rev. Marilyn Engstrom became the first female Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral. She retired in 2012 and was awarded the title of Dean Emerita in 2017. Nelson said the title is one of distinction and honor.
While St. Matthew’s remains the see, the bishop has relocated his offices to Casper. Askew said this move was made because Casper is a more central location for him to serve from.
The current bishop of the Diocese of Wyoming is the Rt. Rev. John Smiley. While Smiley doesn’t usually oversee the services, Askew said the bishop would do so several times a year and during major events.
The Episcopal Church branched off from the Anglican Church during the Revolutionary War. Askew said the church kept a lot of the beliefs after its division from the Roman Catholic Church, but there are a few differences. For example, Episcopalians do not recognize the Pope as their leader and clergy can get married.
Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com