The History of St. Stephens

St. Stephen’s rich 150-year history began when a few farmers in the tiny settlement of Burlington attended a church meeting at their schoolhouse in 1868. The Reverend Francis Byrne (Colorado Territory’s first Episcopal Missionary) traveled from Fort Collins to hold that first service. His sermon inspired homesteader Margaret Andrew to organize regular Sunday school meetings. Since those early gatherings, St. Stephen’s has persevered as the oldest continuing congregation in the St. Vrain Valley.

Burlington emerged around a stagecoach station where the Cherokee Trail (now U.S. Hwy. 287) forded the St. Vrain River. When the Chicago-Colorado Colony built the larger town of Longmont in 1871 on the bluff north of the river, residents moved there, with the Episcopalians meeting in Arthur Llewelyn Williams’ dry-goods store on 4th and Main.

When other Longmont denominations began erecting churches, Margaret Andrew sought help from Bishop Spalding in Denver to do the same. He approved organizing a Mission under the patronage of Saint Stephen, but offered no financial support. Church ladies formed a Sewing Society to raise money. A cornerstone was laid at 5th and Main, and construction began on a wood-frame building. Then a massive fire on Main Street convinced the Episcopalians to use red brick from nearby Lyons rather than wood. St. Stephen’s was completed in 1881 at a cost of $3,500.

While the congregation struggled to pay off debts and increase membership, hiring a permanent priest was a greater challenge. Lay readers and visiting clergy often led Sunday services. Lay reader Williams eventually sold his dry-goods store to enter the priesthood. He did not return to St. Stephens, but later became the Episcopal Bishop of Nebraska. Stained glass windows were donated to St. Stephen’s upon his death.

The Reverend William Worthington served St. Stephen’s from 1888-1891 and again in 1921-22. During his first term, Longmont endured a long outbreak of black diphtheria. Unable to hold services, Worthington visited New York seeking donations, which helped pay off church debts and enabled St. Stephen’s to be consecrated as a “parish” church. Worthington’s portable silver chalice and paten set remain at St. Stephen’s. Worthington’s great-grandson, Marc Genty, was our deacon until his recent retirement.

One fondly remembered minister was the Reverend Elliot Williams Boone (1929-1939), whose grandfather and father were the first Episcopal missionaries and bishops in China. When Elliot’s father died, he and his mother returned to the U.S. – barely escaping China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Elliot became a priest and ultimately came to St. Stephen’s, where he remained until his death. The main gathering halls in both churches were named “Boone Hall” in his memory.

In 1945, St. Stephen’s hired the Reverend Richard Sonne, a former Presbyterian minister ordained by the Episcopal Church as part of the Reformed Episcopal Movement. An old-time “fire and brimstone” preacher, he introduced “low-church” concepts to St. Stephen’s: women were appointed to the vestry; any Christian (not just church members) could participate in Eucharist; and terms such as “priest” and “altar” were discouraged.

The Reverend Edgar Thompson (1965-1977) experimented with contemporary music and eastern spiritualism to attract the “hippie generation.” The congregation eventually voted to end that experiment. He succeeded better in helping St. Stephen’s find a new home in 1971 when the membership outgrew the 90-year-old Main Street building. Longmont’s prominent Kanemoto family generously donated land close to the old Burlington School site, and a campaign was launched to preserve the old church as a historical landmark – Longmont’s oldest remaining church building.

The Reverend Raymond Zips (1977-1982) introduced “high-church” reforms influenced by the “Charismatic Renewal” movement. Women covered their hair, clergy wore more formal vestments, and a literal interpretation of the Bible was encouraged. The “Charismatic” movement also promoted “speaking in tongues” and emotional displays during prayer. Conflicts over these changes and other factors resulted in his resignation.

The Reverend Ralph Evans stepped in from 1983-1990. A giant “teddy bear” of a man, his strength, compassion and “bear hugs” helped heal the church community. When he felt called to start a new mission in Florida, he suggested that the Reverend Max Bailey apply.

“Father Max” intuitively got to know his congregation before introducing changes and successfully managed St. Stephen’s for over 27 years (1990-2018), longer than any other priest. During that time, St. Stephen’s witnessed building improvements, addition of a columbarium, experiments with a church school, opening the Eucharist to anyone, blessing of same-sex marriages, increased member participation, and the introduction of ideas from a variety of religious scholars. The outdoor labyrinth, built during his tenure, was named in Father Max’s honor on his 25th anniversary as our priest.

(More details about our history can be found in the book, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church of Longmont, written by church member and historian, Sandy Hargrove.)