The first religious edifices erected in east Las Vegas were the Episcopal and Methodist churches, built within months of each other, at the intersection of Eighth Street and National Avenue, known since then as Zion Hill.
The first was the Episcopal chapel, the adobe building still standing east of the existing church at the northeast corner. The small chapel was the first Episcopal church in New Mexico, and was consecrated to St. Paul on Nov. 16, 1879, by Bishop John F. Spalding of Colorado. (Spalding paid $100 for the property, and an additional $1,000 was raised for construction.)
After the chapel became too small for the growing Episcopal congregation, funds were raised for a larger church. On May 11, 1886, the cornerstone was laid for the existing St. Paul’s Peace Episcopal Church, under the direction of the Rev. George Kelly Dunlop, who was Bishop of the Diocese and made his headquarters in Las Vegas.
The new church was completed and consecrated on April 27, 1890, when a new Bishop, the Rev. J. Mills Kendrick, conducted services, attended by visitors from Santa Fe and Albuquerque. (Bishop Dunlop, who died in 1888, is buried in the crypt beneath the altar of the church.)
The original chapel is still owned by the Episcopal Church and is known as Guild Hall, having been used for many years as the meeting place for the Episcopal Ladies Guild.
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Just three months after the Episcopal chapel was completed, the Methodist Church opened its doors at the southeast corner of Zion Hill. The small frame structure was erected at a cost of $2,176, and dedicated on Feb. 15, 1880, by the Rev. Earl Cranston of Denver.
After serving the Methodist congregation for more than 40 years, the frame church was replaced by the existing church in 1922-23, at a cost of about $40,000, for the brick building, organ and furnishings. (The original frame church was acquired by Highlands University, where it was used as a little theatre.)
The new church was dedicated in March, 1923, and ceremonies included a homecoming rally, musical programs, Sunday school exercises, and a formal dedication by Bishop C. L. Mead.
The new church included a Mohler 390 pipe organ, pews of quarter-sawn oak made to order by Garnett Church Furniture Co. of Kansas, and stained glass windows designed and manufactured by the Jacoby Art Glass Co. of St. Louis. (In the 1950s, an education annex was added to the rear of the building, without altering the appearance of the blonde-brick church.)
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The third-oldest church in New Town is the Presbyterian Church at 1000 Douglas Ave., built under the auspices of the Rev. John C. Eastman, who arrived in Las Vegas in 1880. Costing $14,000, the church was dedicated on Oct. 16, 1881. (The building was remodeled in 1946, but the original structure was retained in all respects.)
Succeeding the Rev. Eastman were the Revs. James Frazer, F. S. Bush and Norman Skinner, the latter serving a record tenure from 1892 until his death in 1920.
Though they did not build the first church in New Town, the Presbyterians were the first Protestant denomination to erect a church in Las Vegas. Built in 1871, the Presbyterian Church still stands atop the hill at 1413 Chavez St., in Old Town. (The church was built by the Rev. J.A. Annin, a Presbyterian missionary who started a school at the same location in 1869).
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The Baptist congregation in Las Vegas was the first in New Mexico, organized on Jan. 31, 1880, by the Rev. M.H. Murphy, with 17 members. Within five years, the congregation built a church at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and University Avenue, where a pharmacy stands today. The imposing frame structure was surmounted by a belfry and steeple, and was dedicated in August 1885 by the Rev. E.N. Sawyer of Canyon City, Colo.
As the Baptist congregation grew, it promoted fundraising festivals, sponsored public lectures, and engaged in missionary endeavors, and the Baptist Young Men’s Union led the movement for the founding of a local YMCA in 1902. (The YMCA building at 618 6th St. was erected in 1906.)
On Feb. 11, 1922, the Baptist church was destroyed by fire, and arson was suspected. Under the leadership of its pastor, the Rev. M.L. Fergeson, the 300-member congregation quickly raised money for construction of a new building, to be located a block west of the original church.
At a cost of about $20,000, the existing Baptist building at the northwest corner of Seventh and University was built in 1922-23, and continued as a Baptist Church until very recently.
These early Protestant churches were among the first in New Mexico, and some continue to stand proudly as enduring Las Vegas landmarks.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.