When you walk through the ancient red doors of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Woodward, you sense a presence.
Perhaps it is the echo of 120 years of history in this, the oldest church still in use in Northwest Oklahoma and the panhandle.
Or just maybe, it is the energy, still swirling, from the hundreds of weddings, baptisms, christenings, candlelight services on Christmas Eve and early morning Easters, which took place each year since the little church was built in 1893 on its original location at 701 Main Street.
You could be sensing the spirit it took to plan and move the sturdy little Late Gothic Revival style structure, built within months after the land run.
It no doubt took an entire church community in 1901 to secure the sacred structure on a horse drawn sled, as was customary of the time and ease it into its new location on 10th Street, according to documentation from the U.S. Department of Interior.
But probably, as you move to your pew and hear the soft creak of the original “car” boards that make up the wood floor underneath and you and gaze up at the crucifix, hovering over the Chancel, it is all of those things combined with the raw need people have to come and worship something bigger than themselves.
According to the Rev. Mary Davis, St. John’s Vicar, there is a plan to celebrate the long and enduring history of St. John’s on Saturday, May 31st.
An open house recognizing 120 years that St. John’s has been serving Woodward will take place from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. The event offers refreshments and a chance for the entire community to tour the historic building and learn the sometimes misunderstood truth about its origins. Everyone will get a chance to sit in the wooden pews – the originals - and discover how and where St. John’s was actually constructed and who built it, Davis said.
A service of evening prayer afterward at 5 p.m. is open to members and former members who have already RSVPed.
On Sunday the Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Edward Konieczny will lead the regular 9:30 a.m. service, Davis said.
But more importantly, Davis said, the open house is a chance to reach out to anyone in the community with open arms of invitation to explore faith – no judgment, no requirement to join the church, just an open door to explore faith for your selves, she said.
“My prayer is that the outreach we do meets the needs of people who lack the resources (spiritual), which prevents them from experiencing life, love, joy and God,” Davis said.
It is that openness, a willingness to take people right where they are in life, which could have been what kept this little church so relevant for 120 years.
Even before the church was built, the membership had been already established in 1892.
It consisted of a few who had come to make a life in early Woodward Times were tough then and that toughness shows in the original construction of the church – most of which is still intact, according to historical documentation.
Parishioners built the church with what they had, using wooden “car” board panels to build the walls of the vestibule (entry) and wooden flowing, also still intact.
The sturdiness of the structure tells the story, though, of souls reaching out for a sense of community, of peace and faith in a hard land that could strike them down just with a moments change in the weather.
Ironically, it is that same aspect of life still true here now that draws people to doors of the same church today, Davis said.
If you ask Carolyn Bishop, she would tell you, after searching her whole life to find a church, she knew instantly St. John’s was for her.
“When I started dating Jim five years ago I started coming here,” she said. “The moment I walked in the doors, I knew this is where I belong. It just gave me a sense of peace about my life and that I belonged somewhere.”
It is that sense of deep faith and community that lends to the abiding nature of St. John’s, Davis said.
“It is wonderful that we have many generations of people who are still committed to be here to worship,” Davis said. “That has become so important to me – a faith community and worship because that is how we get through life.”
Like any religious organization, there are tough times that occur within it financially and within the humanness of the organization. Nevertheless, then and now, the people of St. John’s have persevered.
“It’s so special to me that people are committed to coming Sunday morning to strengthen their relationship with God and be fed by God in word and sacrament,” she said.
Davis said it was St. John’s strong foundation in the traditions of the church that were the basis of its ability to withstand historical events peculiar to land run days.
For instance, in the years immediately following the land run, speculators disappointed by myriad difficulties and the initial failure of Woodward to grow, went back east or left to travel further west, according to U.S. Department of Interior documents. They left the church for as few as 10 individual members to either continue or abandon.
And yet, the tiny congregation chose to continue serving it and endowing it to serve Woodward.
“I believe what has lent to the stability of St. John’s is celebration of Communion and the Lord’s Prayer,” Davis said. “It’s so emotional and meaningful that sometimes, it chokes me up.”
The Common Book of Prayer, with its time honored prayers of celebration for life events, baptisms, weddings, funerals, holidays all weave together the fabric that envelopes the St. John’s community of faith, Davis said.
And that’s it really, isn’t it. It’s not about the building, but what happens there in a human sense, she said.
It is that human celebration with God creating the energy that supports the tiny wood structure with its gabled entryway, its lancet, Gothic windows and two small brick chimneys - a nod to its time, Davis said.
It was probably that same gritty and basic need to reach for each other that led to the building of a parish hall in 1953. No doubt over the years in the hall, bowls of tangy cucumber salad and hot beef casseroles filled those celebrating and nourished those grieving.
In 1966 the congregation also expanded by purchasing the adjacent residence to the east, creating a vicarage (residence for the vicar). It now serves as the parish office connected to the church by a loggia in 1983.
These days, if one sits in the church office long enough, one can see the impact on Woodward the tiny church on the corner has. More often than many in Woodward even know, it’s a refuge for the homeless. Sometimes it’s a respite for a young married couple needing a bit of counseling so they can stick it out and learn what it really means to love each other.
It can be the site of a new life of peace or a hall where the greatest pain of loss can be safely expressed.
And if you take just a moment and talk to some members of St. John’s, a peculiar similarity is shared between those who attend services and care for the church today and those who had the vision to build it.
St. John’s members for years now, T.Z. and Vicki Wright find a quiet sense of reflection that gives them a feeling of safety and strength when they attend services.
Although their lives are, quite naturally different than those members who erected the building in 1893, their reasons for their faithfulness are probably the same.
“I am a cradle Episcopalian so when we moved to Woodward in 1959, my great grandmother and grandparents on my mother’s side, were already here (at St. John’s),” Vicki Wright said. “What keeps me here is the whole service. I love the liturgy, the community feel of our church.”
Wright also said there is a spirit of acceptance and of forgiveness that permeates the congregation of St. John’s that renews and refreshes her spirit for the week ahead.
“It’s just a special feeling when you walk in and see people kneeling, saying prayers together, singing hymns and going to Communion together,” she said.
For T. Z. Wright, an Episcopalian convert, it is an interconnectedness with every Episcopal church in the world that draws him out of bed each Sunday morning and to the red doors of St. John’s.
In it he finds a calming sense of order, he said.
“It is just kind of a chance to have some moments of quiet reflection and try to connect a little bit to something that is bigger than self,” T.Z. Wright said. “I do like that there exists, in the church, a thing called the Book of Common Prayer, so the service you’re going to get is consistent wherever you go participate, whether that is at St. John’s or a big church in the city.”
Anyone who wants is invited to come to the 120th Open House Celebration at St. John’s, Davis said. Davis knows that for some people, it might be a little frightening to just talk in a church on Sunday during services. It is her hope the open house will give people a chance to see the church and feel welcomed ahead of time.
“All are welcome to come and worship our Lord in the tradition of the Episcopal Church,” she said. “And a great place to start is to come to see the church at the open house.”
For more information about the 120th Open House and Celebration of St. John’s Episcopal Church call the church office at 580-256-7713 and leave a message for Davis.
St. John's Episcopal Church marking 120 years of serving Woodward
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