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History's headlines: St. Mark's Episcopal Church: A coal town's Victorian gem

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: May 17 2013 04:32:37 PM CDT
Updated On: May 20 2013 06:53:53 PM CDT

History's headlines

What do a cut-glass tumbler full of rye whiskey and an elegant 19th century Episcopal chapel have in common? Well, if an often-told tale is true, one of them- St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Jim Thorpe- would not have come to be without the other.

As the story is handed down, it all began with Asa Packer. This hard-working Connecticut Yankee carpenter and boat-builder, who later become one of America’s first really wealthy men and founded the Lehigh Valley Railroad, Bethlehem Iron (later Steel) Company and Lehigh University, was a self-made man who some found a little rough around the edges.

Although no one could accuse him of being a heavy-duty drinker, Packer sometimes chose to relax now and then with a glass of rye whiskey. And from what is known, compared to many of his hard drinking contemporaries, he was a moderate drinker in what one historian has dubbed the “Alcoholic Republic.”

It was in the 1830s, while he was building up his fortune in the town then called Mauch Chunk, that Packer began looking for a church to call his own.

A Congregationalist by background, the local Presbyterian Church seemed to be as close as he could get to the faith of his childhood. But just as he was about to be accepted by the church, one little requirement came to light: he was asked to sign a temperance pledge. And that meant agreeing to cease drinking alcohol.

The rest of the story gets a little murky on the details, but one thing is clear- Packer never joined the Presbyterian Church. Instead, either by chance or design, he met William Sayre, a toll-taker on the Lehigh Canal and a devout Episcopal layman. It was Sayre- so the story goes- who invited Packer to make the Episcopal Church his religious home without requiring a temperance pledge. And so Packer did.

A number of years later when he was approached to make a contribution to the up-and-coming Lafayette College, he strongly declined, stating that he would never give any money to any institution that was, as Lafayette was at the time, related to the Presbyterian Church.

St. Mark’s was not the first Episcopal church in the Lehigh Valley. That honor went to Trinity Episcopal in Easton. But local membership in the Episcopal Church did not really take off until the first St. Mark’s was planned in the 1840s and opened in 1852.

It was a simple Gothic Revival type structure whose image only exists today as a shadowy white outline form. It would serve the little community until 1867 when it was closed and construction started on the current church.

St. Mark’s architect was Richard Upjohn, an English immigrant cabinetmaker who is considered one of 19th century America’s greatest church designers. Totally self-taught, he is once said to have seen a book of architectural drawings and exclaimed, “If that’s architecture, then I am an architect.” His best known work is New York’s Trinity Episcopal Church in the financial district.

By the time he designed St Mark’s, Upjohn was coming to the close of his career. One critic noted that the architect scenery closely “adapted the designs to its peculiar surroundings.”  Upjohn’s great grandson wrote many years later that the church’s “large turret climbing up one corner of the tower,” was a hallmark of his later designs. The design is Gothic Revival, the most popular church style in the Western World in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the February 1868 issue of the parish newsletter, the rector Rev. Leighton Coleman noted it was “very pleasant to me as I sit writing in my study to hear the busy click of the stone masons at work, and to think that thus something is being done even at this season to forward the building of the new church, of which I am constantly feeling more and more the great need.” 

St. Mark’s consecration took place on November 25, 1869, and it has been a house of worship ever since. Its major artistic features, added later in the 19th century, are two stained glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany: “The Road To Emmaus” and “The Breadth of My Love.”  Another are called reredos, a screen or decoration behind the church’s altar. St. Mark’s reredoses are exact copies of those in St. George’s Chapel in England’s Windsor Castle. According to local historian Joan Campion, permission was sought and granted by Queen Victoria to allow them to be copied for St. Mark’s.

The Packer family endowed St Mark’s over the years and generously saw to its upkeep. As a result the church was able to maintain itself. In the 1880s, for example, Addison Hutton a well-known architect of the time, added to the building at their expense. In 1912 Packer’s daughter, Mary Packer Cummings, oversaw some changes in the church, including installing an elevator.

This was done so she could attend services without climbing the many steps that was difficult for her because of her age. One story, which may or may not be true, is that the only time she was on the elevator was when her casket was wheeled on it at her funeral.

Today the church is both on the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark, and regular tours are offered and can be arranged by calling the church at 570-325-2241. “We love people coming to see the church,” says current pastor Rev. John C. Wagner, “But for me what is even more important is the wonderful caring loving people who make up our congregation.”