Courtesy The Union, Grass Valley
August 2, 2018
The Rev. Van Deerlin, Emmanuel
Episcopal Church, 1895
Emmanuel Episcopal Celebrates Its Landmark Church
by Gage McKinney
This week Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Grass Valley, celebrates the 160th anniversary of
its sanctuary, one of the county’s iconic buildings.
The church was built on land donated by the Gold Hill Quartz Mining Company, an early
and successful firm. The gift stipulated completion of a church within 18 months. The company
had previously rented a house on the property to Lola Montez, an Irish dancer and actress who
had become a Bavarian countess.
The parish, which had organized three years earlier, began a building campaign. The
most novel fund-raisers were two teenage girls, Isabel Attwood and Elizabeth “Jennie” Jenkins.
They spent days on horseback, visiting the claims in the district and collecting nuggets from the
open hands of the placer miners. The girls’ family names are inscribed on stained-glass
With funds in hand, the parish commissioned William Bettis, a local designer-builder, to
build the church. He had built many of the stylish houses on Richardson Street.
The parish specified a building “in the Gothic style.” Gothic architecture developed in
the 1200s in European cathedrals built with stone. It came to America as a revival in the 1800s,
reintroduced in reaction to the dislocations and traumas of the Industrial Revolution.
In this country, where fine timber was plentiful, innovative Americans translated the
style into wood, creating a new style called “Carpenter Gothic.” The sculpting patterns achieved
by European artisans were replicated in Grass Valley with the help of new, steam-powered
The church is distinguished by its verticality. Inside, the building features a long narrow
nave, taller than it is wide; a ribbed-vault ceiling; pointed arches and pointed windows. Outside
there’s a gabled roof line; vertical buttresses; small, decorative spirals; and high crosses.
Every detail of the design reaches toward a higher plane. The windows, especially the
altar window in front and the rose window at the rear, channel light from above. In an
impermanent Gold Rush-era camp, the church expressed a longing for permanent things.
The result is a uniquely American structure which evokes another time and place.
Emmanuel Church encompasses a sacred space by standing in striking contrast to any other
building in town. It asserts a spiritual reality.
Emmanuel Church first opened its doors for worship on August 1, 1858, barely meeting
the 18-month deadline. The building has survived to become the oldest Episcopal Church
edifice in the American West.
From almost the start the building attracted photographers and inspired artists,
including George Mathis, a prominent mid-20th century painter. The likeness of Emmanuel
Church has appeared on postcards, calendars, notecards, book covers, tea towels, blankets and
mouse pads, making it one of the most enduring images of Nevada County.
The 160th-year celebration began last Sunday with a sermon connecting the parish
history to the Christian gospel. It continues this Sunday at the fellowship hour following each of
the three morning services at 7:30, 9:00 and 10:30 am. The church is at 235 South Church
Street, Grass Valley.
Today the parish is served by the Rev. Seth Kellermann and a staff of clergy and lay
people. Thom Greathouse is music director and organist.