First Presbyterian Church in Bellingham to celebrate building's centennial

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 24, 2012 

Just over a century ago, the members of First Presbyterian Church in Bellingham decided they needed a larger building to replace their rustic, steepled church at High and East Maple streets. Their small church had cost about $5,000 to build in 1889, a tidy sum for the 20 or so members.

When it came time to move, they didn't have to move far, but they did have to dig deeply into their pocketbooks. They paid $4,600 for a corner lot one block away at North Garden and East Maple streets in 1910, and spent $67,000 to build and equip their new church.

"They scrimped and saved and sacrificed to do this," said the Rev. Doug Bunnell, pastor at First Presbyterian for nearly a decade.

The new church was dedicated March 3, 1912. To celebrate its centennial, as well as recent improvements to the building, public tours and a pancake breakfast will be available Oct. 6.

Back in the late 1800s, First Presbyterian initially attracted people of Scottish and Welsh descent, reflecting the legacy of John Knox, the 16th century Scottish clergyman who was a leader of the Protestant Reformation.

With its buttresses, stuccoed exterior and bell tower, the church at Garden and Maple displays what one architectural guidebook calls a "curious combination of Gothic and Mission Revival styles."

Inside, Bunnell said First Presbyterian's sanctuary resembles those in Scottish churches, with a wraparound balcony, minimal decoration, and an array of stained glass windows that mostly depict the life of Christ before his crucifixion. The 350 to 400 worshippers who attend Sunday services each week sit on shiny cherrywood pews without the comfort of cushions.

"Those Presbyterians, they were of staunch stuff," Bunnell said.

In recent decades, the church acquired a new organ and sound system, and sealed the exterior and painted it a pleasing brown, covering over what Bunnell called "penitentiary gray."

In the past few years, the church spent $750,000 to bolster its balcony for better safety, and to install a ramp, elevator and new bathrooms for better access for people with disabilities.

"Should people with wheelchairs have to be carried up our steps?" Bunnell asked. "No!"

As with any structure a century old, there's a mix of old with the new. The bell from the former church now hangs in the bell tower of the new church, where it's rung on special occasions.

From inside the sanctuary, people who gaze up at the large stained glass window that overlooks Garden Street still see a small patch of clear glass in the lower abdomen of a knight figure in the right panel. That marks the spot where, around 1913, a disgruntled citizen - upset by the church's anti-liquor stance - drove by during a Sunday evening service and fired two rounds of birdshot at the church.

Given its urban setting, vandalism remains a pesky drawback for First Presbyterian, Bunnell said, along with tight parking in the neighborhood close to Western Washington University. Rather than being major problems that must be overcome, he said, the location is a reminder of the church's mission to serve the Bellingham community, including the many students attracted to the INN, First Presbyterian's college ministry.

"It's a wonderful church community," Bunnell said. "I feel blessed."


COMING UP

What: Tours and free pancake breakfast to celebrate the centennial of First Presbyterian Church, 1031 N. Garden St.

When: 8 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 6.

Details: 360-734-5510, fpcbellingham.org.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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