Retired pediatrician Doug Chadwick remembers the first service at St. Paul's Church when it opened in Modesto. It was raining on that Christmas Eve in 1971 and the parking lot was unpaved, "just part of a field. It was very muddy. One man guided us by flashlight, walking over boards so we can get in."
No one in that service could imagine that 37-plus years later, most of the congregation would walk away from the multimillion-dollar church on Oakdale Road just south of Briggsmore Avenue. But the split between Episcopals and Anglicans has grown so wide and litigious, Chadwick and others will do just that.
Their last service at St. Paul's will be held as usual two Sundays from now, on June 28. Their next service, on July 5, will be as Wellspring Anglican Church in the old J.S. West building in downtown Modesto.
During that week, St. Paul's will become the first parish in the San Joaquin Diocese -- and one of the first self-incorporated parishes in the nation -- to willingly sign its property over to the Episcopal Church before a lawsuit has been filed. The church, which is 130 years old and has been at various locations in Modesto, predates the San Joaquin Diocese and owns its property free and clear.
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"Our name's on the deed. It doesn't even have the name 'Episcopal' on the deed, and we paid for it," said the Rev. Michael McClenaghan, St. Paul's priest. "Not a dime came from the Episcopal Church, not even a dime from the diocese."
But national and state courts often have ruled this way: If a local church was once Episcopal and then leaves the national church to become Anglican -- a more conservative branch of the same worldwide body -- the property should revert to the Episcopal Church.
"We have been consistent on this point, which recently was upheld by the
California Supreme Court and in many other states," said Anne Rudig, director of communication for the Episcopal Church. "We believe that church property has been developed by past generations and is held in trust for future generations. It is our responsibility to uphold this belief."
She said the national church does not keep tabs on individual parishes, but confirmed it is "not common" for churches such as St. Paul's to simply leave property and begin a new congregation elsewhere. She declined to state how much money the denomination has spent on lawsuits in the past two years, though she pointed out that the overall finances of the church are available online.
Beyond the legal issues, McClenaghan said, is one he cares more strongly about -- a biblical passage in I Corinthians: "Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?"
It's a clear message, McClenaghan said.
"At some point, we've got to grab on to something that God has to say and just be obedient to it. Our approach has been: They say they want (our property); they must need it more than we do.
"Our focus is not about the property. It's about ministry. We don't feel we have to have this property to accomplish what God has for us to do. They seem to feel that it's so critical, they're willing to sue hundreds of churches all over the country and spend millions of dollars to fight over property, when it shouldn't be that important."
McClenaghan understands the emotional toll that leaving St. Paul's will have on his congregation. He grew up at St. Paul's. The current sanctuary was built when his father, the Rev. Malcolm McClenaghan, was the church's rector.
"A lot of the people who are here now are older congregants who worked on building this place, paid for building this place, were the parents of my peers, my friends," he said. "They were secondary parents to me. Some of them are on the vestry (the parish's ruling body) at the moment. I've known these people for a long time.
"Most of them are going with us because it's about the church; the church is the people and not the building. I think this congregation has that pretty clear in their minds."
It won't be easy for many, however.
"There are people who have been here for 40 years or more, and I know it's been a struggle for them," said Jan Wysong, lay director of the vestry. Wysong joined St. Paul's in 2001. "I'm anticipating some will stay. I know there are some who are trying to sort things out and they'll probably struggle with that for a while."
St. Paul's has about 200 congregants on an average weekend. Wysong said he believes about 80 percent or more will move to the new church.
The congregation will leave almost everything behind, including the pipe organ that recently underwent a $40,000 restoration.
Chadwick, 73, said the organ is the church item he'll miss most in the move.
"It's probably calling a little bit louder than anything else because it's the one thing we can't duplicate," he said.
Then there are the people who will stay behind.
"Some of my best friends are the Remain Episcopal people," he said. Nevertheless, he added, "I'm excited about (the move). We can minister to the downtown Modesto people."
Some will remain
One of Chadwick's friends is Wallace Ruch, a 79-year-old retired optometrist who has been part of St. Paul's since 1974. He and his wife plan to stay at St. Paul's when the majority of the congregation moves on.
"We felt basically that we're kind of the big-tent philosophy," he said.
"Our feeling has been from the beginning that a diversity of opinion on various matters should come up. I dislike having continually a certain narrowness. It strikes me that this has increased with the ordination of our new presiding bishop (Katharine Jefferts Schori) in this country. I think many people have not respected her."
He called the upcoming move "troublesome," but said it won't ruin his friendship with those joining the Wellspring congregation. "I plan to continue in (Royal Family Kids Camp) and other activities," he said.
The Rev. Norman Van Walterop, an 80-year-old Episcopalian priest, said he plans to be part of the congregation at St. Paul's when it reopens as an Episcopal church July 5. Van Walterop was the first rector at St. Dunstan's in Modesto and most recently has been attending Christ the King in Riverbank.
But he is not critical of the current leadership at St. Paul's. "I think Father Michael did the right thing," he said. "This could have dragged out in the courts. It's too bad. It's messy."
He also knows it's a confusing time for onlookers.
"I think people outside the church are very confused. They wonder, 'Why are you people always quarreling?' That doesn't bring people into the church. I've become opposed to the division in Christendom. It's been going on since the Reformation."
Bishop Jerry Lamb, Episcopal bishop of the San Joaquin diocese, which is headquartered in Stockton, said: "I'm very pleased that we're not going to have to go through any more legal steps to recover the property that belongs to the Episcopal Church. These (lawsuits) are terribly destructive and (that money) can be put to much better use helping other people."
He said the diocese plans to keep the name, St. Paul's, and begin a new Episcopal congregation there with the St. Paul's congregants who stay and others who left the church when it became Anglican. There also will be a new Episcopal priest, yet to be named.
"On the fifth of July, there will be two services, at 8 and 10 o'clock," he said. "I plan to be there for both of them."
Lamb also said it's "very likely" the Episcopal diocese will move its headquarters from Stockton to the Modesto church. He already has announced that the annual diocesan convention will be held at St. Paul's in October.
Fighting an 800-pound gorilla
Because the property was self-incorporated and does not include the name of the Episcopal Church on the deed, why not stay and fight for it? Isn't the property, assessed at $6 million a few years ago and at $2.3 million by Stanislaus County in 2008, worth the battle?
"There are many people who have gone through this and lost their property through litigation," said McClenaghan. "I've not heard one who said to me, 'Hang in there and fight it.' They've all said, 'It was to the detriment of our church community to fight it out.'
"You're dealing with an 800-pound gorilla; the Episcopal Church has hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal. They can litigate until the cows come home. It's not going to stop. Somebody has to say something for themselves. I know one way to stop it, and that's, 'Let's just walk away.' "
He said he isn't bitter.
"I know Bishop Lamb. I've known him a long time and I like Jerry. We have some very fundamental differences, obviously, very serious, deep differences on some of these things. But I think that he is an honest, decent, well-meaning guy who's part of the overall scenario here. I think obviously they're going to come to St. Paul's and do the best they can do to build a church.
"But my sense of it is that this is the Bible Belt of California. This is not San Francisco; this is Modesto. I don't think they're going to fare as well here as they would somewhere else. They are going to try to have a congregation here, and we don't want to interfere with that. Do what you're going to do and we're going to do what we're going to do.
"I will say this about the property: Because of the process we've gone through to prepare ourselves to even think we could leave it, it's really changed this congregation, particularly the leaders. I'm not sure, to tell you the truth, that if we could get it back, we'd want it back. We're pretty excited about the prospect for ministry where we're going downtown. I think it's going to open up a whole new vista for ministry than the ministry we've had in the suburbs."
ST. PAUL'S TIMELINE
St. Paul's Episcopal Mission is established by the Rev. Douglas Ottinger Kelley of Trinity Church in San Francisco. First meetings are held in a Methodist church.
First St. Paul's church is built at 14th and H streets in Modesto.
•Feb. 9, 1938:
Fire, perhaps caused by a falling tree limb in a severe windstorm, destroys the church.
•Sept. 18, 1940:
A new church is dedicated at 17th and I streets (today, Ralston Tower is on that site).
A parish hall is added to the church.
The Rev. Malcolm McClenaghan becomes St. Paul's rector and moves to Modesto with his wife and four children
•Aug. 8, 1971:
Ground is broken for a new church at 1528 Oakdale Road.
•Christmas Eve 1971:
First services are held at St. Paul's, which was built with the first triodetic dome on the West Coast.
Two classroom buildings are added.
An office and gym structure is built.
•Dec. 19, 2007:
The San Joaquin Diocese, to which St. Paul's belongs, votes to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Anglican province of the Southern Cone in South America.
•March 29, 2008:
St. Paul's parish votes, 93 percent to 7 percent, to affiliate with the Anglican Mission in America.
•March 22, 2009:
The Rev. Michael McClenaghan announces that the congregation will be moving to a downtown location and will sign over its Oakdale Road property to the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin.
Last Anglican service at St. Paul's
Reopens as an Episcopal parish
• The Episcopal Church USA (TEC) overseas all Episcopal dioceses, which are made up of churches, called parishes. TEC is one province in The Anglican Communion, which is the name of the worldwide church.
• The San Joaquin Diocese's clergy and lay representatives voted overwhelmingly in December 2007 to leave TEC and accept oversight under an Anglican authority in South America. Now there are two parallel groups: The Anglican diocese, headed by Bishop John-David Schofield, has its headquarters in Fresno and represents about 40 parishes. The Episcopalian diocese, headed by Bishop Jerry Lamb, has its headquarters in Stockton and lists 19 parishes.
• St. Paul's Church joined the vote to leave TEC in 2007. As a self-incorporated parish, which gives it more independence, the church chose to affiliate with a different Anglican group, Anglican Mission in America.
• More than 700 parishes and four dioceses across the country, including San Joaquin, have split from the national church over the interpretation of Scripture, including whether Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God and whether homosexuals should be ordained. These disagreements have been going on for decades but were brought to a head by the 2003 ordination of openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
• Each side claims ownership to the diocese's properties. The Anglican San Joaquin Diocese says it is still a member of the Anglican Communion and so it doesn't have to "give back" its parishes and headquarters. Episcopal officials say the properties were established as Episcopalian and thus belong to TEC. A federal lawsuit has been filed by TEC, seeking return of all property. On Friday, Lamb sent a letter to nine parishes -- including St. Francis in Turlock and St. James in Sonora -- seeking "to arrange the transition of all properties and assets back to the Episcopal Church."
• "I hope these churches will respond to this invitation, and that we can begin a conversation to move forward with this transition," Lamb said in a news release.
• Because St. Paul's parish left the Anglican and Episcopal dioceses, parish leaders believed it to be especially vulnerable to a lawsuit. Before that happened, the congregation and priest decided to sign over the property to the Episcopalians and begin a new Anglican church elsewhere.
• A preliminary ruling on a federal lawsuit filed by TEC and the Episcopal San Joaquin Diocese against Schofield and the Anglican diocese is expected this summer.
• Meanwhile, the priest and leadership board of St. Paul's will resign from that church corporation after their last service June 28 and sign their deed over to the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. They then will gather as a new corporation, Wellspring Anglican Church, and hold their first services July 5 in downtown Modesto. Their property at Oakdale Road near Briggsmore Avenue was appraised a few years ago at $6 million; it's now worth more than $2.3 million, according to the county assessor's office.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2012.