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First El Paso Protestant Church: St. Clement's
By Laura Andrade, with additional research by Myra Cuevas
When Texas was opened to American colonists in 1820, they were required to embrace Catholicism . But Protestants had already begun an inroad into Texas between 1815 and 1817, when Methodist circuit riders began traveling into the northeast region. The first Baptist, Presbyterian and major Methodist churches were established in the 1830s, as were the first two Episcopal churches.
In 1850, the U.S. Census counted 328 churches of all faiths in Texas, with only 13 being Catholic. In 1860, just 10 years later, the total number had jumped to 1,034, according to the Texas Almanac. But not one of them was in Franklin, later to be known as El Paso.
Image caption: The Church of St. Clement opened in 1882. This photograph shows several additions to the original building. Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society
In 1867, when Gaylord Judd Clarke and his family came to Franklin, it was little more than a few adobe buildings in an area that was still periodically attacked by Indians. A couple of small private schools existed, but no churches other than the Catholic missions in Ysleta and Socorro that had been established centuries before. The Clarkes were educated and descended from aristocratic Eastern families, including a signer of the Declaration of Independence. They found little established law in the wide open town where saloons and gambling were more familiar than the Bible. But like several other pioneers, they saw opportunity in this rough frontier outpost. Clarke would soon be appointed district judge through the influence of a fellow Episcopalian, Colonel Albert J. Fountain.
Gerald Brown wrote in Password, the journal of the Historical Society of El Paso, that when they found no church to attend, the Clarkes began reading Episcopal services in their home on Sundays, allowing interested townspeople to join them and listen to Clarke's sermon. As the need for a Protestant church grew, Clarke and Fountain traveled to Austin to ask Bishop Alexander Gregg for aid in establishing an Episcopal church in El Paso.
“Quite properly, Judge Judd Gaylord Clarke has been credited with being the founder of St. Clement's,” wrote James Stoney, author of Lighting the Candle: The Episcopal Church on the Upper Rio Grande . Clarke and Fountain's request would spark interest in the Southwest region and bring Reverend Joseph Wilkin Tays to El Paso to begin the first Protestant church in El Paso.
Joseph Wilkin Tays was born on Dec. 13, 1827, in Novia Scotia. Tays, of Scottish-Irish descent, was one of seven children. C. L. Sonnichsen noted that he was educated at King's College, taught at West Point and was ordained an Episcopal priest in Texas. Two of Tay's brothers, John and James, were both Texas Rangers who pursued a life of adventure while Joseph relied on the scriptures and his faith to open doors. Parson Tays, as he was affectionately called, made a lasting impression on the community of El Paso.
Tays moved to Indianola, Texas, in 1860 with his brother and sister-in-law, George E. Tays and Mary Parker Tays. In 1867, his brother and sister-in-law died from yellow fever. Although Parson Tays pleaded with his 24-year old wife, Jemmima, to leave the area until the epidemic was over, she insisted that her place was by her husband's side. She and their youngest son also fell victim to yellow fever.
After suffering the loss of his wife and child, Tays served as chaplain to the Texas Senate for a year. He then came to El Paso to establish the first Protestant mission church between Santa Fe, N.M. and Brownsville, Texas, arriving on Oct. 2, 1870. Tays met with Judge Clarke and assisted with the services at Clarke's home. Soon Parson Tays rented two rooms in the old Massie Building, located between Mesa and Oregon Streets, and held El Paso's first service in a Protestant church on Oct. 9, 1870. Within a month of his arrival, Tays had started a mission day school.
According to Esther Darbyshire McCallum, St. Clements' historian, the new church was named after Clement Clarke, the deceased infant of the Clarkes. The name of the church also honored the martyr Saint Clement. Third successor to Peter as Bishop of Rome, Clement was exiled by Emperor Trajan to an island where he worked in stone quarries with prisoners. According to McCallum, because the prisoners were denied adequate water, Clement prayed for help. When he saw a lamb on a hill, he dug in the area and found fresh water. This miracle caused him to be thrown into the sea with a heavy anchor tied around his neck. Brown said, “The symbol of St. Clement's Church is the anchor of faith which is also the symbol of St. Clement.”
Still more sorrow would come to the Clarke family, devoted supporters of this first Episcopal church. Sonnichsen wrote that attorney Ben F. Williams and Fountain had become enemies by 1870 when Clarke had been named district judge, a post Williams wanted. On Dec. 7, the inebriated Williams confronted Fountain, shooting at him wildly with a derringer and wounding him in the arm and forehead. Williams ran to his quarters and barricaded himself. Judge Clarke attempted to coax him out. Williams came out this time with a shotgun and killed Clarke instantly. Williams, in turn, was shot by Albert French, a state police captain. Parson Tays and the congregation of St. Clement's buried their beloved friend on Dec. 9, 1870, just two short months after the mission's first service.
In 1871, a bell was cast for the church that not only called the faithful to services but also alerted the town to fires and other urgent situations. Over the years, different men used it for target practice, and it acquired a number of dents, reflecting the dangers of frontier life. This bell would find a special place in the new church built several decades later.
Brown wrote that by 1875, most of the small congregation had moved away or died. Parson Tays closed the church and went back East. When the railroad came to El Paso in 1881, so did many families with small children. The women demanded schools and churches, civilizing influences to help tame the wild west. Parson Tays knew the timing was right. He returned to El Paso, acquired land on Mesa Avenue and helped George McIntire, a carpenter also from Nova Scotia, build a church and rectory.
A Feb. 15, 1882, article in the El Paso Herald describes the church and the first day of worship at St. Clement's. The ceiling was made of California sugar pine, while the wainscoting and seats were of redwood. The small church had a corner tower, seated 150 and even had an organ. The article said, “The church was crowded with an interested congregation and… there was not a single seat unoccupied.” The church would become known as “The Watch Tower on the Rio Grande.”
In 1884, St. Clement's suffered another major loss. According to a Nov. 21,1884, El Paso Herald article, Parson Tays contracted smallpox after conducting funeral services for a victim of the disease and lived only a week. He was quickly buried amid a strong rain- storm. Leon Metz wrote in El Paso Chronicles, “Parson Tays, who had ministered to so many sick and dying, was himself laid away with only two drenched, grave digging strangers to say a kind and final word.”
Over the years, the little church grew in size and grandeur, with two wings added to the original building and the first stained glass window installed in 1895. It served El Paso well for 26 years.
In 1908, the present church of St. Clement was completed on lots on the corner of Montana and Campbell Streets. Although St. Clement's saw many hard times in its infancy, today's church is one of the most beautiful churches on the Westside. Looking like an English Cathedral, it was constructed from native bluestone quarried from Mount Franklin. In 1978, it was designated as Pro Cathedral for the Diocese of the Rio Grande , which includes the state of New Mexico.
St. Clement's is known for its striking stained glass windows, depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Windows are dedicated to loved ones by members of the church. In 1968, a two-year project produced several stained glass windows in the narthex of the church on two themes: the Trinity and Bible stories of Christ's infancy.
The success of St. Clement's Church encouraged other Protestant churches. By the 1890s, more than 15 others had been established. The perilous border town Gaylord Judd Clarke and Parson Tays had lived in was well on its way to becoming a large city with plenty of opportunity, just as they had envisioned. And its residents could now worship at the church of their choice.