On San Juan Island in the 1800s, settlers endured on hard work and faith

The Presbyterian Church had been ministering to the needs of San Juan island residents for more than 30 years when it moved to town, at Spring Street and Blair Avenue, in the 1890s. - San Juan Historical Society and Museum
The Presbyterian Church had been ministering to the needs of San Juan island residents for more than 30 years when it moved to town, at Spring Street and Blair Avenue, in the 1890s.
— image credit: San Juan Historical Society and Museum

By Dr. Joe Bettridge

As Friday Harbor Presbyterian Church anticipates its 150th anniversary in 2010, a brief review of the church’s origins seems in order.

A look around the island reveals a number of obvious physical landmarks that testify to the congregation’s longevity. There are three church buildings still in existence. They are:

— The current Spring Street church (1988).
— The 1897 church building, also on Spring Street, that now serves as an office.
— The historic Valley Church (Presbyterian) located at the San Juan Cemetery (1882).

In addition, a number of the town’s streets are named after prominent Presbyterians beginning in the 19th century. This includes names like Tucker, Blair, Guard, Jensen and Carter.

The question should be asked: can we rely on the traditional 1860 date as the beginning point for Presbyterian ministry and mission on San Juan Island? Frances Seels wrote her outstanding history of the Friday Harbor Presbyterian Church in 1987. The Presbyterian Story on San Juan Island begins with the following paragraphs:

“This story begins anno Domini 1860. It was at about this time, tradition has it, that a visiting missionary, a 'colored' man from Victoria, was the first to hold services in a log school house at Portland Fair Hill. In due time he met with the Rev. Thomas Summerville, pastor of a Presbyterian Church located in Victoria on Vancouver Island. Thereafter, in consequence of this meeting, Rev. Summerville undertook to minister to the people across the channel himself, dividing his time between Victoria and San Juan."

By 1870, there was church every Sunday, not by the itinerant missionary from Victoria but San Juan’s own resident … sandy sideburned, beloved T.J. Weekes. As it happened, probably in the late 1860s, young T.J. Weekes, who was born in Kent, England, left his home and sailed around the Horn to land in Victoria, Vancouver Island. Here he met Thomas Summerville. In 1870, Summerville sent young Weekes to the San Juan Island Church to become their regular pastor. (This from church records, miscellaneous notes.)

I have examined the source documents cited by Frances Seels. In addition, I have spoken about our common heritage and history with the Rev. Ian Victor, the current pastor of St. Andrews’ Presbyterian Church in Victoria, B.C. I have also consulted with the St. Andrews archivist Dr. Alan Arneil. These gentlemen graciously gave me a copy of "The Kirk that Faith Built," which is the authorized history of the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Victoria, B.C.

In addition, Dr. Arneil provided me with a copy of Rev. Summerville’s April 28, 1867 correspondence from Victoria to the Colonial Committee of the Church of Scotland. In this report, Summerville describes his extensive missionary trips to communities on Vancouver Island. While he does not mention San Juan Island, this correspondence does establish Rev. Summerville’s willingness to regularly minister to folks at some distance from Victoria.

I discussed Summerville’s unrecorded visits to San Juan Island with National Park Service historian Michael Vouri. We considered how in the early 1860s San Juan Island enjoyed a peaceful joint occupation by British and American troops. There was also a growing civilian population.

San Juan Island would have been an attractive, if not irresistible, destination for early Presbyterian missionary interest from Victoria. It is hard to imagine how the well-traveled and mission-minded Summerville would not have eagerly visited this nearby and potentially fruitful missionary field. Furthermore, the Summerville connection with San Juan Island is solidly documented a couple of years later when Summerville sent the Englishman, Rev. T.J. Weekes, from Victoria to San Juan Island.

We have one pertinent written document pointing to an 1860 beginning date for the Presbyterian story on San Juan Island. This is the Mary Jane Fraser account. Mrs. Fraser was interviewed in 1936 as a part of an official State of Washington compilation of pioneer reminiscences from territorial days and before. She presents her description of “the first minister to come to the island” in the context of Island conditions circa 1859.

David Richardson. author of "Pig War Islands," tells us that he relied on the oral history of island pioneers to set 1860 as the date for the first worship services on Portland Fair Hill. Further, we know that during the 1850s there was a considerable fellowship of Presbyterians and Congregationalists in Victoria under the leadership of Rev. John Hall. It was from this diverse Calvinist community in Victoria that our first missionary came across Haro Straits to proclaim Christ on San Juan Island.

From the mid-1860s, the congregation on San Juan Island continued to relate to the Presbyterian Community in Victoria. In particular, the Rev. Thomas Summerville, the founding pastor of Victoria’s St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, encouraged the San Juan Island congregation in those early years.

Thus, the roots of Friday Harbor Presbyterian Church derive not from American Presbyterianism but from Victoria, B.C. Based on these documents and oral traditions, I am personally confident of Frances Seels and David Richardson’s 1860 dating of the origin of the Presbyterian Church on San Juan Island.

We have also located the approximate site of the schoolhouse/church on Portland Fair Hill. This comes from several sources including long time local memory, pioneer accounts of the walking distances to the schoolhouse and a picture of the structure itself. If you have ever looked from the beach on the eastern side of the City of Victoria toward San Juan Island, you can easily imagine a 10-mile missionary voyage to San Juan Island in 1860 followed by a hike up Portland Fair Hill to the schoolhouse/church.

Some speculation remains concerning the ethnicity of the “colored” missionary sent to the island from the Victoria Presbyterian group. It has been suggested that he might have been a Hawaiian, i.e. Kanaka. This now appears to be incorrect. Mary Jane Fraser’s account makes clear that he was a man of black African ancestry.

Why is it important to ponder these historical matters? We live in a beautiful place surrounded by sea and sky, forests, fauna, flowers and farms. Everywhere we look we see the evidence of a good and loving Creator. We live on an island that is blessed with a pace of life that encourages serenity of soul. This too, is God’s kind gift to us.

But we also dwell in time as well as place. We are creatures that experience duration. The Bible asks us to reflect on both the shortness and the beauty of our earthly life. We are not the first to live on our island, nor will we be the last.

— Dr. Joe Bettridge is pastor of Friday Harbor Presbyterian Church. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and Fuller Theological Seminary.

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