Historic Sketch of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Oak Harbor, Washington
I. Early History - 1952 to 2000
St. Stephen’s story begins in September of 1952, when a young Oak Harbor Navy spouse, Maxine D’Vincent, an Episcopalian, began questioning why there was no Episcopal church in or near Oak Harbor. She discovered that there were several other Episcopalians in the area interested in forming an Episcopal community. She contacted the Diocese of Olympia and organized a tea at her home attended by several other women (St. Catherine’s Altar Guild resulted from this early meeting). The Diocese was represented at this meeting by a priest, the Rev. William Forbes of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon, and by a young deacon who would play a major role both in the original formation of St. Stephen’s and in its later history, Charles Forbes. Others who were actively involved in the formation of the new church included John and Stella Cox, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Koch, Mrs. Trudy Christie, and several more. St. Stephen’s owes its start to this group of young activist Episcopal lay people and the energetic young deacon.
On October 30, 1952, interested persons met at a potluck supper at the Grange Hall in San de Fuca, near Oak Harbor. Rev. Forbes and Deacon Charles Forbes both attended as special guests. As a result, the Bishop of the Diocese of Olympia, the Rt. Rev. Stephen F. Bayne, Jr., appointed a Bishop’s Committee of the Episcopal Mission of Oak Harbor as a governing body. This committee met for the first time on December 10, 1952, with Deacon Charles Forbes presiding. The little congregation held its first service, a family Christmas service, on Sunday, December 21, 1952, at the IOOF Lodge Hall in Oak Harbor. It consisted of the Order of Daily Morning Prayer conducted by Deacon Forbes. Regular Sunday services at the IOOF Lodge Hall began immediately.
The congregation held a dinner meeting with Bishop Bayne on January 6, 1953, in the basement of the Oak Harbor Baptist Church. The Bishop’s Committee (forerunner of the vestry) met for the second time on January 16, 1953, and immediately began discussions of land acquisition for a church. The Committee wasted no time; by February 3, it was ready to sign a contract (subject to Diocesan approval) for the purchase of two lots in Block 4 of Beeksma’s Addition (the present location of the church office and All Saints Chapel) for $1700, on terms of $100 down, $300 per year payable on March 15, 1953, 1954, and 1955, with the balance due on March 15, 1956, interest on the unpaid balances at the rate of 5%.
Another important action item was the naming of the new church congregation (it was still a mission, not yet a parish). The congregation held a dinner meeting on March 3, 1953, in the basement of the Oak Harbor Baptist Church, and selected the name “Saint Stephen’s on the Sound,” presumably in honor of Bishop Stephen Bayne. The Bishop liked the name but urged the mission to drop “on the Sound,” which the Committee promptly and unanimously did (March, 1953). It would be “St. Stephen’s Episcopal Mission of Oak Harbor, Washington” for the next quarter century.
The next task was to acquire a building for use as a church. The first proposal was to seek donation of an existing building at Fort Casey and move it to the new church site in Oak Harbor. The Bishop’s Committee pursued this lead for several months, but in September learned that the request had been denied because the Navy, which had priority for surplus military property, wanted the building for use on the air base. The Committee then decided to construct a building, at a cost not to exceed $7,000. The Committee considered and approved an architects’s plan for an A-frame design, called for bids, and awarded the contract to Grove Construction Company for $6,554.40, of which St. Stephen’s paid $2,097.32, the Diocese paid $3,457.08, and the Diocese advanced the remaining $1,000 as a loan to St. Stephen’s, which was eventually repaid.
St. Stephen’s raised its share of the cost by conducting a building fund campaign, with a kick-off dinner on November 2, 1953, at the Wagon Wheel Inn in Oak Harbor, at which Bishop Bayne was an honored guest. On November 15, 1953, the mission broke ground for the new church building. The Rev. William Forbes of Mount Vernon represented the Diocese. The Rev. Charles Forbes, who had been ordained a priest on June 29,1953, and assigned to St. Stephen’s, conducting his first full service on July 5, presided at the ground breaking. The construction work proceeded rapidly. Trudy Christie’s 1977 historical sketch of St. Stephen’s relates that the congregation itself did a lot of the work, “with much digging and roofing and work party picnics.” By Christmas Eve, 1953, the building was sufficiently complete to hold its first service, to the joy and excitement of the congregation.
Bishop Bayne, on January 18, 1954, declared the mission organized as of January 1, 1954, under the name and style of “Saint Stephen’s Church Oak Harbor,” the parish to include the municipality of Oak Harbor and the surrounding area, generally described as the northern half of Whidbey Island. The Reverend Charles A. Forbes was appointed as vicar of the mission.
Charles Forbes left the mission later that year to become the full-time priest at St. John of Kirkland. St. Stephen’s remembered him fondly, and Rev. Forbes was to return many years later to guide the remaining faithful at a time of deep division and distress.
The little congregation grew from a handful of people in 1953 to 73 families in 1957. By October, 1956, attendance at the Sunday School was 33 and increasing. 13 confirmations, 12 baptisms, and one marriage were conducted in 1956.
By 1958, the congregation was clearly outgrowing the little A-frame original church building. Two adjacent lots were purchased for $5,000. In 1960, a new, larger church building (now Miller Hall) was built at a cost of around $30,000. Bishop Bayne dedicated the new church on November 5, 1960. It served as the primary church building for the next 20 years. The Diocese advanced $25,000 of the cost. As of 1966, St. Stephen’s still owed the Diocese $13,000, but by 1977 it had repaid the loan in full.
On November 6, 1977, an important date in parish history, Saint Stephen’s Mission became a full parish, Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Oak Harbor, Washington. The Reverend Hugh Miller, who had been serving as vicar of the Mission since 1970, was named the first Rector. He retired in 1980. The parish hall is named for him.
The congregation continued to grow, and in September, 1981, the parish broke ground for construction of the third (present) church building. Construction ended in the spring of 1982, and the first service was held in the new building on the Day of Pentecost, 1982. Bishop Robert Cochrane consecrated the new church on September 25, 1982. Musician Vernon Greenstreet performed the music at the inaugural service. Vernon still provides the parish with his excellent organ music on a regular basis.
In the early 1980s, the original church building - the small A-frame structure that housed the original church - was remodeled. Half of it remained All Saints Chapel. Two new rooms at the east end, which had been used as the parish hall before Miller Hall came into use, became the church library and the Rector’s office. That configuration, substantially in the same form, continues to this day.
By 1991, St. Stephen’s claimed 213 communicants, 180 of them civilians and 38 active duty Navy personnel.
II. The Split
From the 1970s through the early 2000s, change divided the Episcopal Church U.S.A., and did not spare the parish in Oak Harbor. The 1970s saw the first ordination of women clergy in the Episcopal Church. In 1979, a new Prayer Book replaced the 1928 book, beloved by many. Divorced people were welcomed in the church, as were gay, lesbian, and trans-gender people. In 2003, an openly gay man was ordained as Bishop of New Hampshire. In 2006, the Right Reverend Katharine Jeffery’s Schori became the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA. Many Episcopalians welcomed these developments as part of the open, accepting church they loved. Others had difficulty accepting the changes. Some rejected the changes outright. Many individuals left the Episcopal Church. A few parishes around the country left the Episcopal Church USA over these issues and formed an independent “Anglican” communion. Questions of ownership of church buildings and facilities arose, some of which had to be resolved by the civil courts. It was a difficult time for the church.
St. Stephen’s in Oak Harbor became one of the epicenters of the national church divisions. In 2000, St. Stephen’s hired its first female rector, the Reverend Carol Harlacher. Harlacher was strongly opposed to many of the changes, in particular the ordination of gay and lesbian persons (but not, presumably, to the ordination of women). By 2004, Harlacher and a majority of the parish members were in open rebellion against the ECUSA and the Diocese of Olympia. Many parishioners left St. Stephen’s during those years.
On January 18, 2004, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of its becoming a mission parish. As the parish was observing this milestone, the rector was traveling to Plano, Texas, to take part in what she described in her annual rector’s report as “the historic meeting which launched the Anglican Communion Network.” Harlacher continued, “As a parish, this gave us a means by which we could be connected to other orthodox parishes throughout the country and by which we could be identified in the larger Anglican Community as an orthodox parish.” By “orthodox” Harlacher obviously meant not accepting or recognizing the ordination of gay or lesbian people.
Rev. Harlacher conducted a parish survey in January, 2004, to which she reported 88 responses, the “overwhelming majority” of which agreed with her that St. Stephen’s should withhold the payment of any Diocesan assessment “and seek alternative oversight by an orthodox bishop.”
So, rebellion was already in the air before any official action to dissociate from ECUSA took place. Nevertheless, many parishioners felt blindsided when the vestry, on October 1, 2004, voted unanimously to dissociate completely from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Olympia. A special parish meeting was held on October 10, 2004, at which, according to the parish newsletter, 88% of those present voted to approve the vestry decision (many of those who remained faithful to the ECUSA would later contend that little or no notice of the intent of the special meeting had been given). The October newsletter concluded: “...we are now officially St. Stephen’s Anglican Church. We have also been placed under the care of a new bishop, Bishop Robinson Cavalcanti in the diocese of Recife, Brazil.”
This development obviously was not acceptable to loyal Episcopalians. About one- third of the remaining parish members left as the St. Stephen’s Anglicans (SSA) took possession of the church building, facilities, and equipment. Commencing in the fall of 2004, those loyal to the Episcopal Church USA were effectively exiled from their church in Oak Harbor. Exile was to last for nearly ten years before the Episcopalians returned to their church building.
The St. Stephen’s Episcopalians (SSE) appealed to Bishop Vincent W. Warner of the Diocese of Olympia. On October 20, 2004, Bishop Warner announced that St. Stephen’s in Oak Harbor and St. Charles in Poulsbo had declared their desire to dissociate, but that he, Bishop Warner, was “firmly committed to reconciliation.” Bishop Warner appointed retired Bishop Sanford Hampton of Anacortes to serve as a “pastoral presence” to the people of St. Stephen’s “who are not in agreement with the action taken by the Rev. Carol Harlacher, the St. Stephen’s Vestry and some parishioners.” Significantly, He also mentioned retired priest Charles Forbes, the first vicar of St. Stephen’s some 50 years previously, as a clergy resource for SSE. Bishop Hampton and Father Forbes would provide significant support to the faithful Episcopalians during the difficult years ahead.
The SSE faithful petitioned Bishop Warner to have the use of the church building restored to them for worship services. The SSA contingent, however, refused to allow “those who have departed St. Stephen’s” to worship in the church “because they would be served by revisionist priests and bishops - and we have left ECUSA with their ungodly practices.”
By this time the SSE faithful were meeting for church services in each other’s homes, a practice which, while unsatisfactory in the long run, created strong bonds of friendship and loyalty with each other. Parishioner Sandy Taylor recalls, “We were a church. We didn’t just sit back and wait.” The SSE faithful appointed themselves as a vestry, elected officers, immediately began an outreach program, and met regularly for Sunday worship. They considered leasing space elsewhere for church services, but the Diocesan Chancellor advised against it, as such action might be viewed as inconsistent with the claim to ownership and control of the church property. The legal issue of who owned the church property was very real and underlay much of the Diocesan action, or lack of action, during those years. Ultimately, many civil courts around the country ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church versus the Anglicans over the ownership issue, on the ground that the Episcopal Church was a “hierarchical” as opposed to a “congregational” form of church, which meant that the Diocese, not the local congregation, was legal owner of the local church building and other property. This view ultimately prevailed, but that outcome was not assured in 2004-2005
Bishop Warner met with the SSE exiles in early 2005, promising early action to enable the faithful to return to the church building. To the SSE faithful, however, it appeared that the Diocese was doing very little to help. They had been kicked out of their own church building, deprived of their church property, and forced to worship in each other’s homes. No one at the Diocesan level appeared to be doing anything about it. The Bishop, holding on to his dream that the two congregations might reconcile under the auspices of the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Olympia, was reluctant to push the property ownership issue, especially in view of the then-unsettled state of the law
To the SSE people, however, the situation was intolerable. The result was a strong letter, dated October 30, 2005, from the Members-in-Exile” of SSE Oak Harbor to Bishop Warner, signed by parish clerk Barbara Wihlborg on behalf of an attached list of 23 people. It took the Bishop to task. The Bishop had assured them over a year previously that they would be allowed to hold Episcopal services at St. Stephen’s Church, but “the doors of our beloved St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church building are still closed to us.” The letter asked for action by December 4.
The Bishop’s response was to draft a proposed letter agreement for the joint control and use of the church property. The SSE people agreed to sign the letter, but only with an addendum that “we will have full choice of who our priest(s) will be.” ( SSA apparently never accepted the agreement or the proposed addendum.) The property ownership issue was submitted to mediation by a judge in Seattle. Mediation proceedings took place in July, 2006, in Seattle. The arbitration decision satisfied neither side, but essentially recommended that SSE be allowed to re-enter the church building and resume services at a time to be negotiated with SSA, that SSE have its own clergy, and that this arrangement last for 10 years, thus reflecting Bishop Warner’s lingering hope that by living together the two congregations would eventually reconcile and again be part of the Episcopal Church.
In response to the mediation recommendation, Bishop Warner drafted a document that came to be called the “Covenant” among the Diocese, SSE, and SSA. It provided that the SSA and SSE congregations “will share the use of the church property for Sunday morning worship at mutually agreed upon times.” It further provided that, should an impasse result, the Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little, Bishop of the Diocese of Northern Indiana, would be called upon for a binding decision. The Covenant also provided for a final termination date of June 30, 2014.
SSA proved uncooperative in sharing the church property. SSA refused to allow SSE services in the sanctuary and refused to allow SSE to erect and maintain a permanent sign on the property. SSE continued for several years to conduct its Sunday worship services in All Saints Chapel, which could seat about 30 people. SSA continued to use the library and the rector’s office in the original church building as well.
Pursuant to the Covenant, the SSE vestry met several times with the SSA vestry in an attempt to work out a worship schedule in the main sanctuary for the two congregations. The meetings at times became contentious. The minutes for the March 7, 2007, meeting notes that, when an SSE member pressed the SSA rector for an answer to a question, one of the SSA members took offense and “Tempers flared between the two men.” The two later apologized to each other.
On February 11, 2007, the SSE faithful gathered for the first time in over two years in the main St. Stephen’s sanctuary for the investiture of a new Priest-in-Charge, the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, who served in that capacity until October of 2008. With that exception, however, SSE was forced to continue its regular Sunday services in All Saints Chapel. The annual parish report of February 17, 2008, noted that the average attendance was now 34, although the chapel comfortably seated only 28. Nevertheless, it was important that SSE continue worship in the chapel in order to avoid the appearance of abandoning the church property altogether.
Many questions remained about the legality of the Covenant. The SSE members, meeting on October 8, 2006, voted 11 to 5 to accept the Covenant with certain enumerated changes. These changes were apparently never approved or ratified by SSA or the Diocese. On the advice of the Diocesan Chancellor, however, SSE chose to treat the Covenant as valid, and both parties ultimately honored the agreed-upon final termination date of June 30, 2014.
On September 15, 2007, the Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel was consecrated as Bishop of the Diocese of Olympia. This proved to be a turning point in the fortunes of the SSE faithful, as Bishop Rickel immediately took up the SSE cause. Bishop Rickel had been fully briefed on the situation in Oak Harbor, and one of his first acts as Bishop was to visit St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on September 30, 2007. From then on, the Diocese was a strong and effective advocate for SSE. In the words of parishioner Sandy Taylor, Bishop Rickel was “instrumental”in getting SSE back into the main church building. “We wouldn’t be where we are without him.”
With the Diocese now firmly in support, Rick Chapman, SSE Senior Warden, attempted to make contact with SSA’s rector in order to work out a shared-space arrangement for the main church building. At first, SSA was adamant against allowing SSE any use of the main church building, apparently assuming that this would strengthen SSA’s case for full ownership. Meanwhile, similar church ownership dispute cases elsewhere in the United States were being regularly decided in favor of the Episcopal Church and its dioceses against the break-away Anglicans. SSA became aware, too, that the Diocese of Olympia was prepared to litigate the property ownership matter in court and had put aside a substantial sum of money for that purpose. SSA’s own Anglican Diocese either was not financially able or chose not to fund litigation on behalf of SSA. SSA conceded the legal issue and made preparations to move elsewhere. On Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2013, the Episcopalians of St. Stephen’s were allowed to resume worship in the sanctuary of St. Stephen’s Church. They shared the sanctuary with SSA for the next 18 months. It was an uncomfortable relationship. SSA conducted two Sunday services and would not allow SSE to hold a Sunday service between the two SSA services, so Episcopal services began late on Sunday mornings.
In September, 2013, the Reverend Rilla Barrett became Priest-in-Charge of SSE. She recalls weeks of negotiations between the Diocese and SSA over many remaining issues, including vacation of the church property by SSA at the termination of the Covenant and ownership of items of personal property. The Diocese was in regular contact with SSE as these discussions progressed. One of the items SSA wanted to keep was the cross which stood on the wall behind the altar. SSE agreed, reluctantly, to part with the old cross, along with other items SSA desired to keep.The Diocese agreed to provide funds to replace any needed items, including the cross.
In 2014, SSA vacated the property and moved into a storefront in downtown Oak Harbor under the name of Grace by the Sea. On June 30, 2014, SSE took full possession of St. Stephen’s Church, Oak Harbor. The faithful remnant had returned.
The faithful were met at once with a backlog of deferred maintenance items. With financial help from the Diocese, improvements were made to the main church building and Miller Hall, including upgrading the bathrooms. The outside of the buildings was power-washed and painted. The furnace and ductwork were serviced and repaired. The water heater was replaced. Office equipment was installed. A Diocesan-wide workday was held at St. Stephen’s to work on the landscaping.
Local artist Larry Marcell, an SSE member, designed a new window cross. It was installed in the east wall behind the altar and has become the iconic symbol of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Larry Marcell also designed and created many other objects of art for the parish, including the Stations of the Cross on the north and south walls of the sanctuary.
Since the return in 2014, St. Stephen’s has also implemented an active Godly Play (Sunday School) program for children and a nursery. It began a concert program in 2016 and invited the Oak Harbor community to attend. Attendance has exceeded all expectations. St. Stephen’s has also continued its popular Adult Education program, featuring speakers on a variety of theologically-related topics.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church today has a small but vibrant and active congregation with an average Sunday attendance of about 40 persons and an annual budget of $103,000.
MCM April 18, 2018