Two Modesto congregations rooted in one church went their separate ways Sunday.
Wellspring Anglican Church held its first service in the old J.S. West furniture store in downtown Modesto. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church moved back into St. Paul's on Oakdale Road.
Both churches struck a celebratory mood, with 233 Anglican parishioners christening their new house of worship and the Episcopalians drawing more than 200 people from Visalia to Sacramento for their service.
Last week, the Anglican congregation at St. Paul's handed over the keys to its $2.3 million facility to Episcopal Bishop Jerry Lamb. The congregation became one of the first in the nation to voluntarily give its property to the Episcopal Church before a lawsuit was filed.
It's a miniature portrait of a conflict going on across the country over the interpretation of Scripture, such as whether Jesus is the only way to salvation, as Anglicans believe, and if same-sex marriages should be allowed, as Episcopalians favor.
But Sunday, both sides seemed content.
"I felt fabulous about it," said the Rev. Michael McClenaghan about the first service at Wellspring. "The reverence in the songs, the dance, the worship — you can't buy that."
At St. Paul's, Lamb told the congregation he enjoyed seeing the church full, including occasional interruptions by squealing babies.
"It felt wonderful," he said. "It showed the vitality and life that I'm sure is going to continue."
At Wellspring, people seemed pleased as they entered the sanctuary and saw the new altar with a cross on the wall behind it flanked by two long banners to give the appearance of stained glass windows. The building formerly was the J.S. West furniture store and has been used by other churches in recent years.
A place for 'new beginnings'
Before the first song, the vocalist said, "Welcome to Wellspring Church," and the congregants responded with applause. More spontaneous applause broke out when McClenaghan gave the final words just as a train rushed by outside, blowing its horn.
"Perfect timing," he said with a laugh.
It wasn't all smooth sailing, however.
"Our carefully selected and ordered chairs will arrive tomorrow," the priest announced early in the service, explaining why the congregation was seated in folding chairs. The new chairs with kneeling pads were supposed to arrive last week.
He didn't spend much time on the move, only offering an opening prayer to bless the new facility and saying in his sermon about failures: "God loves the underdog. Failure is just another word for new beginnings. That's what we have here in this place. ... As we begin, remember that our greatest successes will come from our biggest failures."
He pointed out a large, commissioned oil painting of Jesus talking with a Samaritan woman at the well. The story from John 4 speaks of a woman who led a life of immorality, yet was promised springs of living water by Jesus. The name of the church, Wellspring, comes from that story.
"The only hope there is of salvation in this world is Jesus Christ," he said. "That's why we're here (in this location) and not there (at St. Paul's)."
About 90 percent — nearly 300 people — have switched their membership from St. Paul's to Wellspring. John Bree is one of them.
"I thought it was wonderful," he said after the service. "I like the facility, the music, the dancing, the prayers. I like the closeness of the congregation."
Ruth Sundar, a member since 1983, said: "It was beautiful worship. It's the same that we always have — true worship. It's a blessing to me."
Kristen Maggitti, who attended with her husband, Chris, and their two sons, Dante, 2½, and Calvin, 1, said she had attended St. Paul's "all my life." She called Wellspring's worship "a wonderful blessing, a great service" and said it was good to experience the "support of the commu- nity" including guests.
Tom Wright, a member of Wellspring's vestry, or ruling body, said the service "means that God has led us in a new direction. We were getting to be a stodgy, middle-class white church in the suburbs, and the Lord told us he wanted us to move in a new direction. We're looking forward to it."
Happy to be back
Looking forward also was a theme at St. Paul's, where Lamb addressed the hard work ahead in rebuilding the Episcopal congregation. He also confirmed that the diocese staff later this month will move to the Modesto church from Stockton, where it has been renting office space.
He also introduced the Rev. Jim Stickney, who will serve as the interim priest for St. Paul's. Stickney was the rector of a congregation in the Bay Area for 20 years and more recently served in three other interim posts.
Episcopalians from throughout the diocese — which runs from Stockton to Bakersfield — changed the times of their own worship services Sunday to come to Modesto.
"I'm overwhelmed because of the significance of it, of all of us gathering together," said Marilyn Maxwell Young, who has attended St. Paul's since 1934. "It was very confusing and disturbing these last few years because of the conflict, but I continued to go because this is my home."
She was one of several St. Paul's parishioners who expressed mixed feelings — gratefulness for the strong support they received tinged with a degree of sadness over the split within their church.
Some longtime members who left St. Paul's after its split from the Episcopal faith in December 2007 returned Sunday.
"It just felt so happy to hear everybody singing," said Louis McClow- skey, a 28-year member of St. Paul's who began attending Riverbank's Christ the King Episcopal Church eight months ago. "We may not agree with everything; you just can't. But we are not judging anyone."
Elizabeth Essa, a member of St. Paul's for nearly 60 years, joined Lamb in raising the new Episcopal flag left by the departing congregation as an act of good will. She referred to the last few years at the church as "traumatic" for her.
"But everything is working well," she said, explaining that McClenaghan had left positive feelings among the parishioners who planned to stay at the church.
"I'm delighted here, and I wish the best to everyone," she said.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or email@example.com.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at 578-2366 or firstname.lastname@example.org.