At 150, Salt Lake City’s First Presbyterian Church Strives to Be “Jesus’ Hands”


Salt Lake City’s First Presbyterian Church proudly celebrates 150 years in downtown, where it grew from a dozen worshipers first gathered in an 1871 livery stable to over a thousand marching for the first services in its Anglo-Scottish Gothic Revival Cathedral in 1905.

Indeed, during this first quarter of a century, despite the doctrinal differences, the zeal of the first Presbyterian for public education also earned the Protestant congregation a welcome from the predominant faith of the state, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Presbyterians founded what would later become Westminster College, along with 36 mission schools and four academies that taught approximately 50,000 children, many of whom came from Latter-day Saint families.

It’s a good historical foundation, but Acting Pastor Steve Aeschbacher says it’s the future of the first Presbyterian – striving to stay true to his devotion to Bible study as well as his ecumenical approach to evangelical principles. shared to serve the poor, the hungry and the homeless – as will be defined by his church in the decades to come.

“One of the great things about ministry here is that spiritual things are ‘on the agenda’ for people in a way that they are not in other areas,” says Aeschbacher, who was chosen as interim pastor after Reverend Michael J. Imperiale retired in June 2019 (a permanent replacement has yet to be appointed). “Our congregation has a long history of cooperation with other denominations [and] with many local groups to serve the needy including St. Vincent DePaul, Crossroads Urban Center, Utah Food Bank, etc.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Retired Pastor Mike Imperiale greets his congregation at the First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City as services begin in June 2019.

Indeed, for decades longtime member of the First Presbyterian Pamela Atkinson was the public face – and arguably one of the most effective advocates – to feed, clothe, shelter and seek medical care. and employment for the homeless and refugee communities of Salt Lake City.

A child herself from the slums of London, Atkinson worked hard to acquire an education and was a nurse in her native England and Australia before emigrating to the United States. She retired in 2002 as Vice President of Missionary Services at Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare.

A retreat”. By the time she left Intermountain, Atkinson had already joined other First Presbyterian devotees as regular volunteers at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall in downtown Salt Lake City. Soon, she transformed a room in the church’s basement into Pamela’s Closet, collecting donated clothing and hygiene items.

That was 19 years ago, and Atkinson – nicknamed Utah’s “Mother Teresa” – always makes sure to replenish a cache of scarves, warm coats, socks, hats and gloves in her car. for “when I see my homeless friends going out on the street.”

“A very friendly church”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pamela Atkinson shares a hug at the Fourth Street Clinic in 2016.

A constant stream of items from Pamela’s Closet is also found in Catholic Community Services, The Road Home, Crossroads Urban Center, Ronald McDonald House, Volunteers of America and other organizations. This is all made possible by a small army of members of the First Presbyterian who mobilized to help Atkinson.

Among them are Wayne and Beverly Simpson, members of First Presbyterian for over 50 years. Indeed, they met in the church’s youth group – Wayne having been born Presbyterian, and Beverly, raised in the Catholic religion, having ventured down the street to Madeleine Cathedral.

“First Presbyterian is a very nice church [and] full of people who come from diverse backgrounds and beliefs, ”says Beverly. “We say that our mission is to” love God, to love one another, to love neighbor and to make disciples. “

For the past 15 years, Beverly has managed Pamela’s Closet, seeing her reach expand from her basic donations of clothing and hygiene to helping homeless people, refugees and low-income families in times of crisis. financial and medical emergency.

Wayne has served as a church elder on several occasions, his duties ranging from leading missionary trips for youth, to repairing homes for the elderly, to overseeing the multi-million dollar restoration project of church in 2004. Yet he is especially grateful for his years and Beverly has been involved in his church’s charitable activities, starting 20 years ago by regularly distributing food in downtown soup kitchens. .

So how could the First Presbyterian Church mark its 150th anniversary other than finding new ways to help those less fortunate in Salt Lake City? How about launching an interfaith campaign to donate 150 “housewarming kits” to help those who have come off the streets and find more permanent housing?

“Kits include toilet plungers, trash cans, bedding, cleaning supplies, cooking utensils,” Wayne explains, “really just about anything you need. [to move in] when you don’t have a lot of stuff.

The heart of Christianity

(Courtesy photo) The Reverend Steve Aeschbacher, Acting Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City.

Such awareness and community service are at the heart of the Christian faith, says Aeschbacher. Still, lingering concerns over COVID-19 – which have slowed down the full return to worship in person, while curtailing the popular annual Scottish festival outdoors and limiting access to the Kirkin ‘o’ th ‘Tartan service on the live broadcast – convinced church leaders to postpone the official and larger celebration of its more than 800 congregation until 2022.

“COVID was – and still is to some extent – very disruptive to our normal way of ‘doing church’,” Aeschbacher acknowledges. “While we worship in person now, we continue to offer online and streaming options; some people still don’t feel comfortable going back in person [meetings].

“But we were made to be in community together – to worship, play, study, pray, eat,” he adds. “So I can’t wait that we can do all of these things in person, without restrictions or worries. “

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Scots Pipe Band performs at the annual Scottish Festival at First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City on Saturday 23 October 2021.

Atkinson takes these concerns in stride, noting his confidence in First Presbyterian’s future as a church family that embraces both its members and its community as a whole.

“Our next 150 years will see us working a lot more outside the walls. The faith of our people will be strengthened by the fellowship and Bible studies within. . . but also by mobilizing to help refugees, ”she said. “After all, we are the hands of Jesus Christ to do His work in our community. “

Ecumenical praise

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) The east-facing stained glass window of the First Presbyterian Church on South Temple in 2013.

In congratulating First Presbyterian on its century and a half in Utah, Catholic, Episcopal, and Latter-day Saint leaders look forward to more years of fellowship and joint charitable efforts.

The LDS Church salutes the First Presbyterian Church’s “mission to love God and love our neighbors” as having “blessed the lives of the people of Utah and given so much to our communities through religious, cultural programs and educational ”.

“The [First Presbyterian] The construction of the church is immediately recognizable and is a historic gem in Salt Lake, ”the statement added. “Our two faiths have had a long and respectful dialogue, and we look forward to an ongoing relationship.”

Deacon Scott Dodge of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City suggests that First Presbyterian (consecrated in 1906) and the Cathedral of the Magdalen (consecrated in 1909) foreshadowed their future good relations.

“The proximity in time and space of these two churches is in a way a tangible sign of what I have started to call the ‘inherent’ ecumenism that exists among the Catholic and Protestant communities of Utah” , says Dodge. “Since Christians are united by baptism, perhaps the closeness [of the two cathedrals] can serve as a reminder that the Church of Christ itself is a sacrament.

This sentiment is shared by Reverend Scott Hayashi, Episcopal Bishop of Utah, who praises both the “beauty of the first Presbyterian Church in the Southern Temple” and its “Christian impact” since its founding in 1871.

“On this 150th anniversary of [their] congregation, “said Hayashi,” may we also experience the tremendous outreach and spiritual work of our Presbyterian neighbors. “

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 23, 2021.


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