A History of St. Stephen’s Church

by Larry Ray Hurto

Just when the first Protestant Episcopal services were held here is difficult to say.  Angus K. Campbell, who came to Newton in 1858, years later remembered lawyer David Lewis Clark (1823-1903) “once a month read the service of the Episcopal church to the faithful of that name” in the 1857-58 Jasper County court house, that being the “one public hall.”

Other services were held in Union Hall, an opera house on the east side of the square built in 1865.  Joseph Stevens (1837-1904) and his wife, Emma, were baptized there by Rt. Rev. Henry Washington Lee, Bishop of the Diocese of Iowa.

Services were held at irregular intervals in the court house by Bishop Lee and also by Rev. X. A. Welton, of Iowa Centre.  These services were prior to 1866.

The first known marriages in Jasper County solemnized by an Episcopal minister were those of Garrett Fitzhugh and Harriett M. Crandall and Nelson Town and Margarett E. Crandall, by Rev. Joseph Evans Ryan (1824-1903), of St. Paul’s Church, Des Moines, December 6, 1864.

In January 1866, Rev. William Thomas Currie (1837-1891), principal of the Preparatory Department of Griswold College, Davenport, visited Newton under an appointment by the Board of Missions of the Iowa Diocese, as missionary on the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad.  At this visit he found only one communicant of the church, Mrs. Alice Van Riper, and no service was held.

In October 1867, St. Stephen’s Parish was organized by Rev. Currie, then rector at St. Paul’s Church, Durant, and missionary of the American Church Missionary Society, who began holding regular monthly services.  The first of these was held at the Congregational Church on October 27.

This time the missionary found the following church communicants residing in Newton:  Dr. Jabez Green, Mrs. Van Riper, Mrs. Charlotte Atwater, Mrs. Sarah Jane Miller, and Mrs. Carolina Clark.  After another service was held in the Congregational meeting house, the Episcopalians were invited to hold their services at the First Universalist Church.

The parish was incorporated December 1, 1868.  The incorporators were Dr. Green, Merritt Buckingham Atwater, Frederick P. Miller, Simeon Van Riper, Thomas Arthur, Col. David Ryan, and Robert Ryan.

“The cornerstone of St Stephens Church was laid in Sept. 1871 by lay members of the congregation without any special ceremony,” the Parish register tells us.  “The cost of the church lot on Washington St [N. 3rd Ave. E.] was $825.00.  It was purchased by Thomas
Arthur for St. Stephens Parish, the deed being duly recorded.”

Joe Stevens, an English-born carpenter who came to Newton in 1856, and David Smith Stover (1838-1909), a contractor and builder who came to Newton from his native Ohio in 1858, built the church.  It is an excellent example of the relatively unusual “carpenter Gothic” style.  The beams of the church came from Iowa City and were hauled part of the way by teams and wagons.

Rev. Currie was transferred to the Diocese of Illinois in 1873 and was succeeded by Rev. J. Sanders Reed, of Des Moines, who held the first service in the new church on the second Sunday after Easter, April 19, 1874.  By his advice, the Ladies’ Parish Aid Society was organized.

Many gifts went to furnish the interior of the church, notably the organ, which was purchased by Col. Ryan, Thomas Arthur, and Miss Lena Clark, at a cost of $700.  It was used for the first time on Christmas Day 1874.  In 1878, the parish had 30 communicants.

After Rev. J. Evans Ryan came to Newton in 1880, St. Stephen’s was closed for a period of about ten years, except for weddings and funerals.  The church was repainted during this time.

In 1894, Stevens, by then a former mayor of Newton, re-shingled and repaired the church “preparatory to holding regular services.”

Rev. Dr. Leroy Titus Weeks organized the first Boy Scout troop in Newton in 1913, and Rev. John J. H. Wilcock continued this youth work during the nearly fifteen years he served the parish.

Through the depression years services were held by Rev. Arthur Miller McLaughlin.
Then St. Stephen’s had no resident priest and the services for the “faithful remnant” were held by lay readers and supply priests.

Rev. Joseph Gregori was sent to Newton in 1949 to “revitalize St. Stephen’s or the diocese would close it.”  Under his leadership new members joined, the old scout house of the 1920s became a parish hall, and a full basement was completed.

Additional alterations took place in 1961 when Rev. Robert L. Gilliam was in charge.
In 1962, St. Stephen’s became an independent parish.  An educational wing was completed in 1963.  Mrs. William Van Note became the first woman to serve on the vestry.

As the oldest church building in Newton in more or less continuous use by its congregation, St. Stephen’s Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.  It was the first building in Jasper County to be so designated.  This was during the record pastorate of Rev. Frederick F. Kramer, now rector emeritus.

Starting in 1999, a building restoration and renovation project was undertaken, during the pastorates of Revs. William J. Ortt and Cathleen Chittenden-Bascom.

Rev. John A. Thorpe has been rector of the church since 2008.  The rector, vestry, and congregation of St. Stephen’s cordially invite interested persons to visit the church and participate in its services.