History of the First Presbyterian Church
of Stillwater, Minnesota
It was 1849—the year of the Gold rush further West. Congress had created the Territory of Minnesota that year, and just to the east, Wisconsin had marked its first year of statehood. Stillwater was a busy center of logging, and a budding community with a physician, a blacksmith, and an attorney. There was a hotel, a general store, a clothing store, a paint shop, a meat market, a saloon and a post office.
Religious leaders of various denominations were finding fertile ground for the establishment of churches. Rev. William T. Boutwell had been the precursor of the Christian effort in the Valley. The need for Christian emphasis must have been evident to Rev. Boutwell when he and his wife and family arrived in the Valley.
When Rev. Joseph C. Whitney arrived in Stillwater on October 4, 1849, Presbyterians secured a foothold. The organization of the first Presbyterian congregation became a reality on December 8, 1849.
To provide a church or house of worship was not easy with so few members, not much money and personal necessities so great. But through self-denial, perseverance and pioneer hardiness, on a lovely August day in 1851, the first church to be erected in this region was dedicated. The early 1850’s were marked in national history as a period of great unrest, the pre-Civil-war days with slavery a raging issue.
It was December 1853 that the Rev. Henry M. Nichols was called as the first regular pastor of the Presbyterian congregation. During his tenure, it was decided that First Presbyterian Church needed new and larger quarters. A new building on the corner of Third and Myrtle Streets. It was dedicated on Feb. 7, 1857. (more about Nichols abolitionist preaching…)
In June 1882, the Rev. Joseph Halstead Carroll of Boston, Mass. arrived and began his labors as stated supply, eventually being called as the permanent pastor. The cornerstone for a new sanctuary was laid in 1883. The 1857 church was sold to the city, moved across Myrtle Street, and used as an armory.
“The darkest hour in the then forty years history of the church was when the leader of the flock was called into the heavens. Returning from a funeral Dr. Carroll caught a severe cold and on the morning of January 8, 1887, died suddenly at the age of 53 years.”
It was after Rev. Lewis H. Morey came later that year that the organ was installed at a cost of $2200, plus $100 for changes in the choir loft. Quoting from the Stillwater Gazette, August 2, 1890, ““the new pipe organ, one of the finest ever brought to the West, of the First Presbyterian Church, has arrived and will be placed as soon as possible. The new organ is a marvel of beauty and its grand swelling notes bid fair for many sweet echoes in time to come.”
In 1897, at nearly the half-century mark in the church history, the congregation welcomed an Irishman to the pulpit, Rev. Samuel Kennedy. It is interesting to note that about this time, since the outside of the church seemed so bare, a “Vine Committee” was appointed. “The women really worked. They planted, reported, replanted, reported, and were reappointed, and the last record of the Vine Committee was in 1911—when they reported that the ground wasn’t fertile enough to grow vines!” (The exterior of the old church on the corner of Third and Myrtle negates that claim. The present building is garnished with some of that same vine!)
In 1905 the Missionary Society began meeting with the Ladies Aid. It was decided to have a missionary program the last meeting of the month, but to maintain separate officers and collections. The missionary members all made pledges—to be paid quarterly and it was a deep secret as to what each one pledged.
Rev. Danner returned to the pulpit for nine months until Rev. John McCoy could take over in September of 1908.
The financial picture in the St. Croix Valley had changed, as the lumbering industry could no longer be the engine of the economy. The lush pine forests had now dwindled; transporting logs from greater distances was not feasible. There was a revision of business interests among the townspeople. The nation was involved in war when Dr. Gilbert Wilson took over as minister.
Rev. Arthur Ratz succeeded Rev. Wilson, and it was during his tenure that the congregation made extensive church improvements. Dedication of the church annex “to the religious educational work and to the social activities” took place at the time of the 75th anniversary in December 1924.
The next pastor was Rev. Jackson E. Smith who arrived in 1929. He was a straightforward, popular preacher with a very energetic wife. These were troubled times throughout the nation with banks failing and the stock market crash. During those depression years five sewing machines whirred one day a week to make clothing for the children of needy families. Boxes were going to various missions.
In 1929 still another group of women started meeting, known as the Evening Guild, particularly organized for young mothers and working girls that could not attend the afternoon church meetings.
In 1935 plans for an “every member canvass” were instituted. Congregational meetings to discuss and accept budgets as approved by the Session and trustees were started. A real mark in history occurred in 1937 when Mrs. Margarita Davis and Mrs. Eva Charlsen were named as the first women elders in First Presbyterian Church and the first in the state. However, it was 2 years after their ordination before they were allowed to serve communion!
The Smith’s pastorate ended in 1937 when they accepted a call to Cincinnati, Ohio and early the following year Rev. Carl Olson came from Colorado. The church was now 90 years old—cause for another celebration, complete with costumes and review of the history. Another war, and again the church was the scene of considerable activity.
The Olsons returned to Colorado in 1944, and soon Rev. Garland Rotenberry was called from a position with Macalester College and the Board of National Missions. During those next eleven years additional space for Sunday school classes was created in the basement area of the old church, and the building was refurbished as the church reached the century mark.
Rev. Paul Smith assumed the leadership of the church next. He was a very literate orator and a popular man. In 1960 land was purchased as a possible site for a new church home. No action was taken regarding construction at that time, for a split occurred in the congregation in the early 1960’s, possibly over a difference of opinion regarding a charismatic emphasis. Was history repeating itself? Rev. Smith resigned to form a Congregational Church.
Presbytery assigned Dr. O.E. Sanden in 1964 to aid in the healing of a hurt and divided people. His impact was great as he lived his faith in the church and community. His final sermon was preached the day he died – in fact, perhaps he was in the midst of a heart attack as he stood in the pulpit the morning of December 22, 1964.
Rev. Merle Strohbehn of Champaign, IL was called to the pastorate in August of 1965. Within two years the congregation had voted to proceed with the building of a new church home at the south edge of Stillwater. A design for the new building was finalized and a cornerstone was laid on September 15, 1968.
The old bell which had summoned worshipers to the two previous buildings now issues its call from a position in the spire of this building. Topping the spire is a Celtic Cross, which represents Christ, over all. The design of the building is symbolic with four identical roof gables facing N., E., S., W. as an indication of God’s grace towards all people, and an open invitation to the community and to the world to find sanctuary and shelter, courage to follow, and strength to serve the Lord.
Through the years, pastors of the church had assistance from student interns, but it was not until 1974 that an ordained minister would join the staff. Rev. Richard Ryman served on a part-time basis while he pursued graduate studies for two years. By 1977 it was apparent that the workload had increased measurably. In June of that year, just 2 ½ weeks after his graduation from seminary, and 2 days after his ordination, Pastor William Chadwick arrived to assume responsibility primarily for youth work and Christian Education. He was indoctrinated very quickly in the pastorate when the Strohbehns left on a scheduled vacation just 5 days after his arrival! By 1979 Pastor Bill’s title was changed to Associate Pastor. With responsibilities now shared by two able leaders, the congregation benefited.
In 1978 Youth Club was formed, meeting weekly on Wednesday afternoon and continuing through the dinner hour.
Pastor Chadwick resigned in 1984 and later that year Session authorized enlargement of staff by calling two women as Assistant Pastors. Rev. Anita Cummings and Rev. Rebecca Tollefson were installed together. Their status changed to Associate Pastors in 1988. This was a period of tremendous growth in the youth ministry.
As a result another building program was initiated to add recreation space and additional classrooms. The “Ark” and surrounding space on the east side of the building was dedicated in 1986.
In 1990, following the longest ministry of any pastor in the history of First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Strohbehn retired. For 25 years he had led the congregation through a period of healing growth and financial stability. Teamed with his capable and caring wife, Harriett, his pastorate in Stillwater ended. In 1990 he was named Pastor Emeritus.
For the next year an interim minister, Dr. Herbert Miller, filled the pulpit with the able assistance of the associate pastors. Rebecca Tollefson accepted a position with the National Office in Louisville in 1991, leaving Anita Cummings at the helm when Dr. Miller left.
In 1992, the congregation called the Reverend David Hansen as Senior Pastor, When Reverend Anita Cummings left to become Senior Pastor in Ithaca, New York in 1995 the Associate Pastor position was open. Reverend Linda (Kitch) Shatzer filled that role from 1997 until 2001.
The Rev. Julia Carlson joined First Presbyterian in 1999 as an Interim Associate Pastor. Rev. Hansen resigned in 2000 and dissolved his relationship with PCUSA. The Rev. Williams A. Enns joined First Presbyterian as an Interim pastor in 2001 he was followed by Robert Long, Interim pastor and Christopher Hagen, Interim pastor in 2002. Rev. Julia Carlson also left her position as Interim Associate in 2002.
The Rev. Paul Gilmore joined First Presbyterian as Head Pastor in November 2002. The Rev. Shirley Harper Cox joined First Presbyterian as an Interim Associate Pastor in 2003. After a year she retired from ministry. The Rev. April Davis Campbell was called in 2004 as an Associate pastor and resigned in 2009. The Rev. Gilmore resigned in February, 2010 after having accepted a call in New Canaan, Ct. Two retired pastors in the congregation stepped forward to assume all pastoral duties: Rev. Sheila Gustafson and Rev. Ken McCullen served faithfully for six months until the Rev. Zach Wilson began as interim pastor in August 2010.
In September 2012, the Rev. Cader Howard was called as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church.
From its humble beginning on December 8, 1849, the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Stillwater has served God and the people of the St. Croix Valley for nearly 170 years.
Chronology of Pastors
William T. Boutwell -1844-1849 Founding pastor
Joseph C. Whitney – 1849-1853
Cader Howard -2012-present
Interim & Supply Pastors
William T. Boutwell, Richard Bull, & Nelson Clark – 1860-1862
Norman Cary – 1881-1882
J. LeMoyne Danner – 1907-1908
Oscar E. Sanden – 1964
Herbert Miller – 1991
William A Enns 2001-2002
Robert Long 2002
Christopher Hagen – 2002
Sheila Gustafson & Ken McCullen 2010
Zachary Owen Wilson – 2010-2012
Richard Ryman – 1975-1977
William Chadwick – 1977-1984
Anita Cummings 1984-1995
Rebecca Tollefson – 1984-1991
Linda “Kitch” Shatzer – 1997-1999
Julia Carlson – 1999-2002
Shirley Harper Cox – 2003
April Davis Campbell – 2004-2009
William Chadwick – 2019 to present