Episcopal church takes time to reflect on a century of service

Mary Belknap, left, talks with Marj Watkins talks at the Episcopal church’s centennial celebration last month. In the background, panels made for the centennial tell of the church’s history.  - John de Groen Photo
Mary Belknap, left, talks with Marj Watkins talks at the Episcopal church’s centennial celebration last month. In the background, panels made for the centennial tell of the church’s history.
— image credit: John de Groen Photo

At first glance, new posters depicting the history of the Church of the Holy Spirit look as if they were lifted from a U.S. history book or one about Vashon’s past.

Amidst photos and text about the Episcopal church’s storied history — artfully created by a committee of parishioners, with one decade on each panel — are images of local and national events: wars and assassinations, pop music and the moon landing, the Asarco plume and the 1970 bombing of Vashon’s courthouse.

“We’re not a little rural chapel set apart,” said Rev. Carla Pryne, the church’s priest. “That was their context. They tried to understand what was the place of their parish and their faith in the world they lived in.”

This year the Church of the Holy Spirit celebrates 100 years of worship and outreach on Vashon. And they’re not holding back during what Pryne calls an exciting time to be a part of the small congregation.

The church’s centenary has already been marked with the creation of a new processional cross, ornately carved from 200-year-old Alaskan yellow cedar, and the planting of a centennial tree, a brightly colored coral bark maple that now sits just outside the building’s fellowship hall. Last month a  centennial celebration, where the history panels were unveiled, and centennial worship service were both attended by Bishop Greg Rickel, head of the Episcopal Church in Western Washington.

“It’s a big deal when a bishop comes,” Pryne said. “But to have him here for the centennial was especially exciting.”

More importantly, Pryne said, the centennial has become a time for the congregation to reflect on where they’ve come from. She and David Swain, who chairs the church’s centennial committee, said parishoners have been amazed to learn of the tenacity of the congregation’s founding members, many of them women, who sustained the church through several changes in location and struggled to bring a minister from off-Island each Sunday until the parish was finally headed by its own vicar in 1949.

“It was not a straight line,” Pryne said. “(They had) a spirit of persistence and determination and loyalty to the vision that they wanted an Episcopal church here. It’s inspiring.”

Swain said the generosity of Vashon’s Episcopalians also stands out over the past century. The congregation’s first building, a small chapel at Portage that they called Christ Church, was built on donated land in 1913. During the 1960s, the will of a Church of the Holy Spirit member paid off the balance of a newly purchased piece of land for the church. And just half a dozen year’s later, a living member paid off the mortgage for the building north of town, where the church still meets.

“That’s not a common story,” Swain said. “You see churches laboring under mortgages for a long time.”

Today, as it has been in the past, outreach is central to the Church of the Holy Spirit’s mission. A cruise through the church’s history tells of camps for the blind, outreach to youth and services at the local nursing home. During the 1970s the congregation supported a Cambodian refugee family; the Wednesday night community dinners that began in 1990 continue today.

Church of the Holy Spirit members also take their volunteer efforts beyond the church walls, Pryne said. One group of women recently helped found Vashon Earth Care, an ecumenical group devoted to environmental stewardship.

“This parish is chock full of activists,” Pryne said. “It’s crammed with people active on the Island and in the wider world.”

Pryne, who came to the Church of the Holy Spirit two years ago, said perhaps one of the congregation’s greatest outreach tools is the large, grass labyrinth that sits just north of the church building. Pryne said people of every faith use the labyrinth, an ancient spiritual practice with pre-Christian roots.

“It’s a way of going into your inner workings that’s not a book or a preacher, not a community,” Pryne said. “Often people go in with an intention — a grief process, to meditate on a scripture passage or … with the intention of asking and inviting God’s presence.”

And just as the labyrinth draws those from all walks of life, Pryne says, the Church of the Holy Spirit strives to be a place where anyone feels comfortable walking through the front doors. For instance, she said, one church member also participates in Buddhist mediation practices and another is the spouse of a Jew who worships elsewhere.

Swain said that although church leadership would like to see more younger people join the parish, they’re pleased with the size of the congregation and the diversity it has drawn.

“People are coming because people are inviting them, and people here are enjoying being here,” Swain said.

A religious exploration class that began in recent years has helped attendants consider their beliefs, Pryne said, and last year a series on spirituality in mid-life drew both Christians and non-churchgoers.

“We support people in their search for God,” she said. “We’re not trying to change people or make them like us. What we are trying to do is welcome them and give them tools of a spiritual nature and help them worship in community.”

This Friday the church will open its doors for a concert by acclaimed harpsichordist Jillon Dupree (see story, page 12). The concert will also raise money for the church’s music program, now headed by Islander Paul Swenson, a talented composer who has boosted the program and even writes original worship songs.

Some say Pryne, who brought Swenson to the church, has ushered in a new era there. Before she came, the parish went through two interim priests and experienced some bumps in the road as they searched for a replacement.

Islander Rex Stratton began attending the church when Pryne, whom he knew from her time at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, came on board. He said he’s impressed with her leadership style and has seen the congregation grow under her direction.

“I came because of Carla and her strength as a minister,” Stratton said. “She has absolutely incredibly good sermons and has a really nice view of Christianity.”

As the church continues its celebrations, Pryne said members are looking ahead to how they can take up the spirit of those whose stories are laid out on the history panels.

In an effort to reach out to an even wider demographic, members hope to boost their children’s ministry, and in the fall they will pilot a new weeknight service to focus more on music and appeal to those who may not attend a Sunday morning service.

“We ask ourselves today ... how do we speak of the grace we know and the hope we hold in our world and on this Island,” Pryne said. “We don’t have faith in a void ... but part of a much broader community.”


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