Ascension is blessed with a long, impressive history, dating from 1838 when Ezekiel Gear, chaplain from Ft. Snelling, conducted the first Episcopal service in the wilderness that was to become Stillwater. Ascension began its first regular services in 1846, three years before Minnesota was recognized as a territory and 12 years before it became a state.
Ascension’s history is interwoven with individuals whose names are recognized throughout Minnesota. The Rev. James Lloyd Breck, founder of St. Paul’s Breck School, laid the cornerstone for a church to be known as Ascension on Ascension Day, 1851, at Second Street just north of today’s Lowell Inn on a site donated by John McKusick. Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple, elected in 1859 to lead the Diocese of Minnesota, first visited “The Episcopal Church of the Ascension” in 1860. In 1875, he consecrated a newer church at the present Ascension site.
Twelve years later, on Easter Day, April 10, 1887, parishioners celebrated the complete restoration of that church and its new pipe organ, installed and paid for with $1,500 accumulated by women of the church, plus a $500 note.
Rejoicing was short lived, however. That night, the church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. A new building, begun that summer with red brick manufactured in Stillwater, was dedicated exactly one year later, on Easter Day, 1888.
Only three items were saved from the 1887 fire – a stone font from the original church, a brass eagle, and the lectern Bible. The stone font, an earlier gift shipped from the east by riverboat, is now in the Margaret Rivers chapel. A new organ, purchased through wise planning and hard work, was installed in the new church, as were the Tiffany stained-glass windows, an altar, pulpit, and other appointments, all given as memorials.
“This is such a sacred place,” the Rev. Thomas Phillips said in his sermon of May 15, 1988, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Ascension’s church building. “God’s spirit fills this place.”
Rev. Phillips continued, “We need to remind ourselves always that the Church is not primarily a building. It is people. But, with that said, we also need to remember that we have a need for sacred places – shrines as it were, set aside from the everyday world.”
Three windows, flanking the altar, were made by the famous Tiffany’s of New York and donated to Ascension in 1910 as memorials. Facing the altar, the Tiffany on the left shows The Education of Mary; in the center is The Ascension of Christ; and on the right, The Annunciation.
Tiffany’s charged $2,000 for the three, including transportation from New York. They are now priceless.