On Sunday, March 31, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in Lake Geneva will celebrate its 175th anniversary. In this column, I will review the early history of the Episcopal Church in Lake Geneva as well as the early histories of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, and the former First Baptist Church.
Episcopal services in Geneva began on March 31, 1844, when Bishop Jackson Kemper of the Episcopal Church arrived in the village on horseback from Milwaukee and conducted services for the tiny handful of Episcopalians in the village. For the next six years, missionary Episcopal priests-in-training from the Nashotah (Episcopal) Seminary in Delafield, Wisconsin, conducted Episcopal services on Sundays in Geneva in the small wooden building of the Presbyterian Church. On Sunday, January 20, 1850, the first rector of the Geneva Episcopal Church, the Rev. John McNamara, who had arrived in Geneva from upstate New York, conducted the first service of the newly founded Church of the Holy Communion.
Rev. McNamara, who had been born in Dromore, Ireland, on December 27, 1821, became one of the leaders of the community in Geneva. In 1854, the second newspaper published in Geneva, the Geneva Express, appeared. Its first page was titled the Anti-Slavery Churchman and was edited by the Rev. McNamara, an ardent supporter of the abolition of slavery.
Rev. McNamara left Geneva in 1854 for Kansas, but returned in 1856 and remained as rector until 1858. In 1856 he arranged to have the Episcopal church purchase two lots at the northwest corner of Geneva and Broad Streets. In 1857, he had the church purchase the wooden building of the Presbyterian Church and had it moved southwest across Broad Street and onto the lots that the church had purchased.
In 1857, he arranged for the construction of a chapel at the south end of the lots. The new chapel was a wooden structure with a high roof. It cost $1,000 to build, which was contributed by Geneva residents of all religious persuasions. Services were held in the chapel from 1857 until 1883 when the present, Gothic-style church building was opened.
Rev. McNamara left the Church of the Holy Communion in 1858. During the Civil War, he was a chaplain in the 1st Wisconsin Infantry Regiment of the Union Army. He died in North Platte, Nebraska, on October 24, 1885, at the age of 63 and was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Geneva.
On Oct. 28, 1880, the cornerstone of a new church building was laid, the wooden building having become inadequate as a place of worship. Rev. McNamara returned to Geneva to give the sermon on that day. The new church building, constructed of native granite and split fieldstone from the surrounding area, was opened on June 7, 1883. For the previous 12 years (since 1871), wealthy Chicagoans — many of whom were Episcopalians — had been purchasing land on the shores of Geneva Lake and building summer “cottages” (i.e. mansions) on their new estates. They provided most of the funds to construct the new Gothic-style building and to purchase a brand new Hook and Hastings organ. This organ is presently being restored.
The First Congregational United Church of Christ was founded as a Presbyterian Church in the spring of 1839 at the house of Judge Joseph Griffin, which was located at the northwest corner of Main and Center streets where the three-story “Walker” (formerly “Trinke”) building is today, by the Rev. Lemuel Hall. When the Rev. Hall founded the Presbyterian (Congregational) Church in 1839, Thomas McKaig had just begun to lay out the streets, alleys, and lots of Geneva. Rev. Hall died many years later, on April 2, 1868, at the age of 73, and was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery. He had been born in 1794 and graduated from Brown University in 1820 and from the Andover Theological in 1824.
James Simmons, who was a member of the Presbyterian/Congregational church, wrote in his Annals of Lake Geneva: “The preaching that we had at first was pretty dry and uninspiring. Rev. L. Hall and Rev. L [Leonard] Rogers never set the lake on fire.”
Not long after the Presbyterian Church was founded in 1839 and officially organized in April 1839 with 13 members, some of whom were Presbyterians and others Congregationalists, the church in 1841 erected at a cost of $500 a small church building on the north side of Wisconsin Street between Broad and Center streets. The church occupied this building until it began construction of a new wooden building on the same site, which cost $2,000 and was built by the carpenters C.W. Maynard and H.S. Conant, for whom Conant Street is named.
The old wooden Presbyterian building was purchased by the Episcopal Church and moved across Broad Street to the northwest corner of Geneva and Broad streets, where it was used as a church by the Episcopalians. On Jan. 5, 1883, the members of the Presbyterian Church voted by a large majority to become the First Congregational Church. In 1894, the First Congregational Church opened its present building. The northern part of the church was built during the 1950s. It is known as Dickinson Hall in honor of its donors, the A.B. Dickinson family.
Although I had been christened at the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in 1942, I began attending the First Congregational Church in 1947 and was taken into membership in the church after my confirmation in 1957. I was elected as one of two youth representatives on the Congregational Church’s Board of Deacons; the other youth representative was Leslie Newcomb.
In 1840, a Baptist Church was organized by the Rev. P.W. Lake at the home of the well known Geneva lawyer Charles Minton Baker. The original Baptist Church was constructed in 1846 at a cost of $1,500. Charles M. Baker was a leader of the Baptist Church until he switched his membership to the Presbyterian (Congregational) Church and became one of its ruling elders.
The First Baptist Church was reconstructed in 1868 at a cost of $1,700. The Baptist Church had more than 22 pastors between 1840 and the end of the 19th century, of whom two, the Rev. P. W. Lake and the Rev. Noah Barrell, were among the most significant. Rev. Barrell is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery.
In 1912, when my maternal grandparents and their three children — my mother, my aunt, and my uncle — moved from the south side of Chicago to Lake Geneva, they attended the church located closest to where they first lived, which was above the Sherman Livery Stable in the alley that ran between Broad and Center streets in the downtown business district. The church was the First Baptist Church.
In 1847, the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church was founded by the Rev. Martin Kundig from Milwaukee. He named the church after the legendary priest who was Bishop of Geneva, Switzerland, in 1602. In 1847, a wooden building was erected adjacent to the present church as a residence for the first priest of the church. The building was also used for religious services. The first “real” church building was constructed in 1854 at a cost of $1,500. An addition to the building was built in 1872 at a cost of $1,600.
During 1890-1891, the present church building was constructed just west of the original wooden church building. The new building, which cost $16,000, was dedicated on Aug. 7, 1892. The architect of the new St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church was William Brady. The Lyon and Healy firm in Chicago donated the church’s organ.
Among the early parishioners of the St. Francis de Sale Church, were my paternal great-great-grandparents, William and Rose Quinn, who had arrived in Geneva during the early 1850s after immigrating to the United States from Tullamore, Ireland. They purchased a farm on the south side of Palmer Road, just west of Petrie Road in Geneva Township. They are buried in the St. Francis de Sales Cemetery on Highway 50, three miles east of Lake Geneva, as are my great-grandparents, Michael Quinn and Polly Dinsmore Enos Quinn, my grandparents, Bernard F. Quinn, Sr., and Ellen Foran Quinn, and my parents, Bernard F. Quinn, Jr. and Helen Wardingle Quinn.
The majority of the early parishioners of St. Francis de Sales were laborers of Irish origin who had built the railroad line from Chicago to Geneva in 1856 and rebuilt the restored railroad line from Chicago to Geneva in 1871. Most of them originally lived in the “Irish Woods” west of Geneva after they had completed building (and rebuilding) the railroad line.
Vying with the Congregational Church as the oldest church in Lake Geneva is the Methodist Church, which was organized in 1837 with a membership of 6 or 7 parishioners. Although the early history of the Methodist Church is somewhat obscure, Methodist services were held in Geneva’s first school building, which was located on the east side of Sage Street just north of Geneva Street.
In 1855, the original Methodist Church was built on the south side of Wisconsin Street just west of Madison Street on a lot given to the Methodists by the seven original proprietors of the village of Geneva in 1837. The building was completed in 1856. Twenty-one years later, in 1877, the present Methodist Church was built at the southwest corner of Cook and Geneva streets at a cost of $10,000.
The sanctuary in the church building was not completed until Aug. 31, 1884. Several years ago, the Lake Geneva architect Ken Etten designed a space for an elevator to the second-floor sanctuary level of the church that fits seamlessly into the building and looks as though it was an original component of the building.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.