The first Episcopal worship in Madison, WI (July 29, 1838)

and the third sermon ever in Dane County!

Two accounts have been widely disseminated. One is of an eyewitness, Simeon Mills, who also was co-owner of the store in which the service took place. His wife took over leadership of the music after the “reverend gentlemen” failed to pitch a tune, and also hosted Bishop Kemper and other guests at dinner between the services.

In the summer of 1838, Mr. John Catlin and myself, having rather outgrown our little log store, 14 x 16 feet on the ground, undertook the erection of a metropolitan building eighteen feet front, thirty-two feet deep and one and a half stories high, in which to open out our general assortment. We had so far progressed with the work as to have the building inclosed and the lower floor laid, but without doors and windows, when one Saturday was made notable by the arrival of the Rt. Rev. Bishop Kemper, the Rev. Mr. Cadle, later of Green Bay, and the Rev. Mr. Grier, of Galena, Ill.

It must not for one moment be imagined that such an arrival in our little community was not the event of the season, that must be duly noticed and improved. It could not be truthfully said that Mr. Catlin and myself opened our new store for religious services, for the front was already open, and, by the introduction of a few boards and blocks of wood for seats, and an empty flour barrel turned bottom end up and covered with a table spread for a desk, the First Episcopal Church of Madison, of sufficient capacity to accommodate the entire population, was complete and ready for dedication on the morrow by the Bishop of the Northwest.

The morning of the second Sunday of July 1838, was bright and warm, and the condition of our improvised church was no uncomfortable feature of the morning service. The people assembled, and the service was commenced at the appropriate time, but “as it was in the beginning,” when no man was found to till the ground, so it was now; when the hymn was given out, no man was found to “pitch the tune” and lead in singing. One of the reverend gentlemen and some others tried their hands and throats, and piped away awhile, but finally gave up in despair, when Mrs. Mills volunteered to lead the choir, and helped out that part of the service, as the Bishop was afterward pleased to express it, “with marked ability.” The discourse was given by the Bishop, and was the third sermon ever preached in Dane County.

Service being over, under the direction of Mrs. Mills, who always took the lead in the family in all religious matters, the reverend gentleman, Mr. Catlin and a few other friends were escorted to our house and a banquet spread of everything choice that the market and the house could afford, the Bishop meanwhile making himself and the little circle merry at the expense of a reverend brother by imitating his style and effort to pitch a tune and lead in singing, and advised the employment of the hostess to give him a few lessons in music.

It is just possible that at our little dinner the courses were not as numerous or the viands as costly or abundant as may have been set before the Bishop in after years, but it was our best, and at all events they were not sent away empty. It was an occasion never forgotten, and was the subject of a pleasant remark as we sometimes met in the downward journey of life. Simeon Mills, recorded in A History of Dane County, Wisconsin, 1880

And from Bishop Kemper:

“A store partly built was comfortably prepared for us, and we had two services at nine and two; in the morning a full attendance and a goodly number all day united in the service.” From the Diaries of Bishop Jackson Kemper, date July 29, 1838

Mills recollection that it occurred “on the second Sunday in July” was written long after the event and is contradicted by Bishop Kemper’s diary.

Another historical tidbit that I came across this afternoon. According to a Milwaukee newspaper article from 1898, Grace Church (completed in 1858) was reputed to be the first stone Episcopal Church west of the Allegheny Mountains.

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