Rawlins Church celebrates its 140th anniversary this week; One of the oldest churches in Wyoming

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By Joshua Wood, Cowboy State Daily
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Wyoming was still eight years away from becoming the 44th state in the Union when the first cornerstone was laid at France Memorial United Methodist Church in Rawlins.

Last Monday, this cornerstone, which is now 140 years old, was commemorated.

Pam Thayer, director of the Rawlins Downtown Development Authority, told the Cowboy State Daily that the church served as the cornerstone of downtown Rawlins.

For more than a century, the France Memorial United Methodist Church has stood at the intersection of 3rd and Cedar streets. The original building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, was constructed of native stone quarried from the mountains north of Rawlins. A parochial school was added in the 1950s.

“Stylistically, France Memorial is similar to other Gothic Revival churches built in Wyoming in the late 19th century,” reads the 1983 nomination form for the building. “Many ecclesiastical structures such as France Memorial built in the mid to late 19th century in America featured elements of the Gothic Revival style such as pointed arches, lancet windows and steeply pitched roofs.”

“When you walk in, you’re a bit impressed with the ceiling and the lighting. It’s very traditional, but it’s very understated,” Thayer said. “Some churches you walk into and they’re really ornate and this church has its own little feeling of understated elegance.”

Back to 1869

Although the building itself was constructed in 1882, an older building housed a Presbyterian congregation dating back to 1869. This makes the congregation one of the oldest in Wyoming.

The first church – measuring 20 feet by 36 feet – was erected on March 13, 1870. Being the first and only church in Rawlins at the time, it was open to all ministers and congregations. About 10 years later, church members began discussing building a new church.

The first church was sold for $300 and moved from the land. He spent three years as a school house, then as a home. For 20 years it housed the Rawlins Republican before it was finally sold to the Engstrom Motor Company and demolished in 1926.

The total cost of the building was $7,800, or $226,200 in 2022 with inflation. The congregation did not have enough funds to cover construction costs, so a mortgage was negotiated with James France. By 1885 enough money had been raised – most of it from France – to pay off the mortgage.

Due to France’s contribution to the construction of the church, it was renamed in honor of his wife. The Mme Elizabeth France Presbyterian Church then became the France Memorial United Presbyterian Church.

It was built for a Presbyterian service, but the building now houses the Victory Baptist Church.

White Pastor

Pastor Mark White returned to Rawlins earlier this year to lead the church.

“Ten or 20 years ago we lived here. I was part of another ministerial organization in the region. We left to pursue other ministry opportunities and I was elected the new pastor in March,” White said. “Trying to find accommodation, I actually arrived in Rawlins around June 15.”

White, due to his previous stay in Rawlins, had some familiarity with the building and was aware of its general age. The answer to the building’s exact age, however, was literally carved in stone. The cornerstone of the church.

“I just started researching this online and found that the cornerstone was laid on July 25, 1882,” White said.

White said he contacted the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office to determine if the church was not just the oldest in the county, but the oldest in Wyoming.

“They did a very quick search of all the church buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places in Wyoming and this is the oldest they found,” White said. “That doesn’t prove it’s the oldest in Wyoming.”

St. Mark

It’s probably not the oldest church in Wyoming, as St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Cheyenne holds that title. According to the Wyoming State Historical Preservation Office, however, construction of St. Mark’s at 1908 Central Avenue began in 1886 and was completed in 1888.

In earlier times, however, St. Mark was elsewhere in Wyoming’s capital. According to the Historic Marker Project, St. Mark’s Parish was dedicated at 18th and Carey Avenue in August 1868 and was the first church erected and dedicated in Wyoming.

Still, 140 years and counting is a good run. And, with the help of Victory Baptist Church and the Rawlins Downtown Development Authority, France Memorial United Presbyterian Church may have a facelift in the future.

“After 140 years, there is definitely wear and change on the building,” Thayer said.

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