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Gallery+Story: Church of St. Clement Echos City’s Growth, History

I’ve discovered, as time goes by, I am starting to think about the past more often.

I’m not that old, only forty-six, but with everything that is going on in my life right now, I am starting to think of people, places, and stories from my past.

The Church of St. Clement has just one such story that drew me in years ago.

In the narthex sits a bell. That particular bell used to sit outside St. Clement’s its prior locations. The first church that bell sat outside of was the old adobe mission. Back then, the mission was near the Rio Grande River and Mt. Cristo Rey mountains.

Later, the bell was moved to the second home of St. Clement’s. This location was on Mesa Street. The corner stone for this location was laid on Christmas Day, 1881.

On February 12, 1882, Rev. Tays said the first service at the new church. In the town, the bell was found.

If you were to visit St. Clement’s and look at that bell, you quickly notice all the dents and dings. Those dents are not a product of poor manufacturing. The dings didn’t happen in shipping. No, there is a story behind them.

The story I was told – almost twenty-five years ago – is about the Church in its second location. Catty-corner from the Church was an old saloon or bar. The Cowboys would tie one on, and then use the bell as target practice.

I can imagine the Cowboys taking aim, after getting liquored up, and firing off a round, or three, in the old west town of Franklin (or El Paso – depending on when the name changed), and whooping it up. Gun shots, followed by the tolling of the Church bells, ringing through the streets. I can almost picture it.

The story of the bell led me to the connection St. Clement’s has with the Salt Wars.

According to the history, as found in “Whose House We Are,” and other information given to me by Bill Cobb, the rector, St. Clement has a long and storied history.

“St. Clement’s founding,” according to Melanie Klink Wayne, author of Whose House We Are, “is best defined by the lives of two men, a layman, and a priest. A third, to a lesser degree, should also be mentioned. All three had similar personal characteristics which motivated them to abandon lives of some standing to embark on an adventure of bringing law and order as well as the Gospel to the unruly west. It can be said that these men, Gaylord Judd Clarke, Joseph Wilkin Tays, and Albert Jennings Fountain, were of high moral character.”

If you are a student of history, those three names should ring a few bells (no pun intended) about the Salt Wars.

Gaylord Judd Clarke was from New York and was a newspaper editor, poet, and had a penchant for adventure. Adventure is just what he found in West Texas.

Joseph Wilkin Tays, a widower with two young sons, came to El Paso first from 1870 to 1875, and then again from 1881 to 1884. Rev. Tays held considerable influence in El Paso as both a minister and member of City Council, director of First National Bank of El Paso, and part owner of the El Paso Times.

Albert Jennings Fountain, also from New York, came to El Paso, with his wife, after the Civil War and established a law practice in the city. In addition to helping found St. Clement’s, he was also a leading organizer of the Republican party in West Texas.

Both Clark and Fountain were involved with the Salt Wars, and when Clark was a judge, he was murdered during that part of our history. (Author’s note: You can read a bit about that here)

Then there are the windows. My favorite part of any Church is the windows. And, if the windows tell a story, I love them even more.

In the past, the windows found within a Church were used for more than just keeping out the weather and adding to the overall atmosphere. The windows served the practical purpose of conveying the Gospel, and important biblical events to a population that was widely illiterate.

The windows at St. Clement’s tell an amazing story.

Some of the windows come from the older church, at the second location on Mesa Street. When the Church moved, so did the windows. Others were added after the move. Regardless of where they came from, or when they were added, they are amazing.

When you walk in the nave, no matter the time of day, and the sun is shining; you are taking back by a riot of color and presence. I say presence simply because it is almost as if the windows are calling to you, longing for you to come over so they can tell you their story.

Each of the windows, from “The Annunciation,” “The Adoration of the Magi,” to those found in McKee Chapel all tell the story of Jesus and His love, as well as some of the history of the Church of St. Clement.

Then there is the small, beautiful, hidden treasure that I discovered. These particular windows are very beautiful in their simplicity. For years I assumed they were part of the old Church brought over to the newer one, but I was wrong.

These windows also tell a story. These windows, found in the corridors of B. M. G. Williams Hall, as you walk past the offices and towards McKee Chapel, follow the life of Jesus. From the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus, all the way to Pentecost.

Rev. Wright commissioned the windows in 1948. Ralph Baker, of Baker Glass, was chosen to make the windows. The drawings which served as the “blueprints” for the windows were by Jose Cisneros.

I was lucky enough to have had met Jose Cisneros. My art teacher, in middle school, Mr. Wilson, was friends with him and had introduced me to him. I remember I had drawn a piece that looked like something Salvidor Dali would have created, and both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Cisneros encouraged me to continue my work.

As an aside my grandmother, Josephine Zimmerman, put me on the artist’s path a very long time ago. She was an avid painter and artist in her own right.

If you would like to read more about Jose Cisneros, and his works, this is a good place to start.

Beyond the windows, there is the architecture of the church building itself. The rough hewn rocks that make up the exterior. The wood work found in the nave of the main Church as well as McKey Chapel.

And the small, seemingly hidden, tiny chapel just off the main church. It’s all so very beautiful and would be time well spent just walking through and taking it all in.

When I was talking with the rector, Bill Cobb, he did say that people are welcome to come and a tour the Church. There is even a small welcome center where someone will be more than willing to help you and show you around.

If you would like to visit, the address is 810 North Campbell. A visit, as I said, is time well spent.

Photos by the author: Steven Cottingham

About Steven Cottingham

Steven Cottingham is an artist, poet (haiku, tanka, senryu) as well as a photographer. Growing up, he wanted to be a columnist, as well as photojournalist. Life, and poor decision, led him down a different path. Today, Steven is chasing those dreams. He is currently working on his next book, as well as starting a small poetry journal. You may visit Steven, online, at www.StevenCottinghamPhotography.com

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