In the late 19th century, Episcopal churches were typically established by the Department of Missions based on where they wanted a church, and they would commission a missionary for that purpose. St. James may be the only church started because of local demand.
In 1891, one year after the founding of the town of El Paso de Robles, a group of six women, collectively known as “The Guild,” submitted a request to the Diocese of California to establish a mission church in Paso Robles. At that time, the nearest Episcopal church was St. John’s in San Miguel, seven miles away, a significant distance in the horse-and-buggy days. The diocese sent a missionary, the Rev. John Abbott Emery, to investigate and his initial report was not favorable. However, his sister, Julia Chester Emery, who was national president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Episcopal Church, convinced him to reconsider, and even provided funds from the newly created United Thank Offering. The Rev. Emery first administered the sacraments of baptism and confirmation in Paso Robles in April 1891. In July of the same year, the Rev. Arthur Lumsden Mitchell was appointed Missionary in Charge of the Church of St. James the Apostle.
One of the early meeting places of the congregation was over a butcher shop, and the odor of hot lard inspired Rev. Mitchell to undertake “construction of the physical facilities necessary for a mission.” Under his direction, a guild hall was built where services were held for a time. The cornerstone of the church building was laid January 14, 1892, and the first recorded service in this building was Palm Sunday, April 10, 1892. Two weeks later, the Rt. Rev. William Ford Nichols, Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of California, blessed the building.
The building was remodeled in 1911 with funds raised from bake sales, teas, jumble sales, cake walks, and, in true Anglophile tradition, birthday parties for the King. It was also at this time that the tradition of the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper began.
In 1921 the Rev. Charles L. Thackeray was appointed vicar at St. James. Rev. Thackeray had been president of the Deanery of San Jose, and was so widely known as “Dean Thackeray” that many assumed that Dean was his given name. Dean Thackeray found a growing division between town residents and country residents, and decided to start a social event where both groups could mix. Stores would close, and no commercial activity would take place. “Leave your purse at home and come to town” was his call. This vision turned into the event that became Pioneer Days in 1931. Pioneer Days is still observed in October each year, and over the years many St. James parishioners have been elected King and Queen of the event.
During Dean Thackeray’s tenure, the church acquired its 1863 Stevens organ. It is believed to be the oldest continually used pipe organ on the West Coast.
In 1938, The Rev. Mr. Lloyd Thomas came to St. James, and in 1944 would become the church’s last vicar and its first rector as St. James converted from a mission to a parish.
The church was extensively remodeled in 1948, at which time a bell tower was constructed to house a bell that came to St. James from St. John’s in San Miguel after a fire destroyed that church.
During the 1980s, the Rev. Carl Hansen, rector of St. James, saw the need for a pantry to distribute food to the needy. This resulted in the formation of an organization called Loaves & Fishes, which was initially housed at St. James. Eventually its operations exceeded available parish space and it moved to another facility. Today Loaves & Fishes occupies its own building and is supported by a number of local churches and secular groups. Although Loaves & Fishes is no longer an outreach exclusive to St. James, our deacon, the Rev. Jacqueline Sebro, on Sundays welcomes a food basket brought to our altar for Loaves & Fishes.
St. James observed the centennial of its founding in 1991. At that time, a history of the parish entitled Celebrate the Journey was written by church member James Holloway, drawing on church records and the memories of many parishioners and former priests.
St. James has a long tradition of supporting civil justice. During the anti-Asian hysteria of the early 1900s, the church went on record as supporting full citizenship for Asian Americans. During the Depression it operated a desegregated soup kitchen in the parish hall, despite demands from local authorities that it be segregated. St. James provided support for servicemen at local military bases during World Wars I and II, and in the late 1940, the Rev. Leon Harris began the “Teen Canteen” in the parish hall, a place for teens to meet, socialize, and even dance!
In the 1960s, St. James rector Thomas Steensland marched in Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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