Serving as pastor of Grand Canyon Community Church, especially given its rich history over the last 75 years, is truly humbling when I consider the work of so many great men and women who have established and maintained such a significant pillar of Christian worship at the South Rim. This anniversary is truly a call to worship and thankfulness for the blessings of God upon this church, and thereby this community.
I believe the most significant aspect of this church is represented in its founding, and remains in the hearts of church members today. A minister or mission team who determine to plant a church in a new community establishes most churches. The Community Church, however, was truly started by the Grand Canyon community. A group of parents' desires to provide Sunday school for their children eventually grew into an established church that would seek resident ministers to lead them. Today, the continued ministry of the Community Church still springs from the faithfulness of its members. This is a simple reminder of the hand of God upon this church and its mission to serve the Grand Canyon community in the name of Jesus Christ.
Formation of the Community Church
Around 1910, a group of Grand Canyon families, a schoolteacher named Ms. Lowman and a Ms. Margaret Scott (cousin of Emery Kolb, co-founder of the Kolb Studio) began holding Sunday school each week for children in various homes of the Grand Canyon community. The children's parents would also gather for scripture reading and the singing of hymns. Soon, hotel registers would be checked to see if there were any visiting ministers, and, if so, they would be asked to hold a worship service in the one-room schoolhouse.
In 1924, the first Community Building was built, and Sunday school and worship services were held there until it burned in 1935. Worship services were also held at times in the El Tovar Music Room and Bright Angel Lodge. During this time, a regular rotation of ministers would commute from Flagstaff and Williams to provide services. They were not given a salary, but were paid from whatever was received in the offering collection.
By the mid-1930's the goal to have an interdenominational church with the intent of establishing a definite program for each Sunday, with the hope of having a chapel and a "resident" minister just for Grand Canyon. In 1936, Grand Canyon Community Church was established, and a great institution of this community was born.
Perhaps the pre-history of the church is best summed up in this statement by Mrs. S. J. Stephens, Superintendent of Sunday School in the mid-1920's and a later Community Church member: "I think the most important thing for all of us to remember regarding the history of the Church and Sunday School, is the fact that there has always been a group of men and women (only a few at times) living here, who were willing to keep our religious life in the foreground."
All information above sourced from "History of Grand Canyon Community Church," written by Amy M. Bryant, Church Historian, February. 19, 1951. As there are no early records of the church's beginnings, Ms. Bryant relied on oral statements and recollections from Mrs. Stephens quoted above.
Easter Sunrise Service on the Rim
One of the rich traditions of Grand Canyon Community Church has been the Easter Sunrise Service on the Rim. Rev. Thomas Moffat held the first Easter services at the South Rim in 1902, a Presbyterian minister who rode horseback for two days from Prescott, Arizona to preside over three Easter services at the Bright Angel Camp.
In the late 1920's, an Episcopal minister from Flagstaff traveled to the Canyon to hold the first ever Easter Sunrise Service on the Rim. The service was held just east of the Hopi House, and starting in 1935 the Sunrise Service became an annual event broadcasted nationally by NBC radio. The national radio broadcasts continued annually for over 20 years, featuring incredible verbal illustrations of the canyon sunrise by J. Howard Pyle, who would serve as Governor of Arizona from 1951-55. It was during this time that Easter Sunrise services were held at what is currently known as the West Rim Worship Site, about 300 yards west of the Hermit Road Village Transfer along the paved Rim Trail.
The Easter Sunrise Service is now held at the newly constructed and wheelchair accessible Mather Point Overlook, a spacious, beautiful place to witness a Canyon sunrise. Annual attendance for this service is typically 800-1,500 residents and visitors, and it is led and sponsored by the Community Church, while also supported by the Baptist and Assembly of God churches. Many visitors plan their vacations around Easter Sunrise attendance, and residents of the American Southwest will often drive hundreds of miles to be present. The Community Church is proud to maintain such a wonderful tradition of Easter worship for the Grand Canyon community and the park visitors they serve.
Shrine of the Ages Building
When the Community Church was formed, one of its primary goals was to have a permanent place of worship. In 1952, the Shrine of the Ages Chapel Corporation was established primarily with leaders of the Community Church. By then, the popularity of Easter Sunrise Service radio broadcasts had brought the Grand Canyon national attention. Prominent medical and business professionals were sought to join the Corporation and lead a national fundraising effort for a Shrine of the Ages Chapel that would be constructed 200 feet from the canyon rim. The National Park Service approved a location just west of the current West Rim Worship Site.
With a proposed price tag of a whopping 1 million dollars (almost $8.5 million dollars today, adjusted for inflation) the chapel was to be a tremendous edifice featuring a full view of the Canyon through large glass panels in the Kiva-shaped sanctuary; altar tables on hydraulic lifts that could quickly change from Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish altars; an adjacent wedding chapel and clergy rooms, and a sophisticated construction design to accommodate the terrain. Then governor J. Howard Pyle threw his clout behind the project, and soon the fundraising effort included a promotional video, Washington lobbying, and a full array of solicitation materials, including bumper stickers and brochures. Over 8,000 people made donations to the Shrine, including such prominent figures as then Vice-President Richard M. Nixon and former President Harry S. Truman.
By the early 1960's, the donation effort did not succeed in reaching its lofty goals. In addition, pressure was mounting from conservation groups not to add another structure to the rim of the Grand Canyon. Disagreements among Corporation leadership and the mounting fundraising challenges threatened to derail the Shrine Chapel project altogether. Jack Verkamp, of Verkamp's Curios adjacent to the El Tovar Hotel, became the president of the Shrine Corporation and resurrected the plans and fundraising efforts to build the chapel. In 1961, under Verkamp's leadership, the Shrine Corporation decided to seek redesign of the building to the more affordable $250,000 ($1.9 million today, adjusted for inflation) and move the location away from the rim to a more central Village location. He also enlisted the help of Senator Barry Goldwater, who personally raised and gifted $70,000 toward the Shrine project.
The current Shrine of the Ages building, located adjacent to Park Headquarters, was built in 1969-1970. It opened, however, as a shell of a building with relatively no furnishings. By 1974, the Baptist Church and Mormon churches had joined the Community Church and El Christo Rey Catholic Church, giving each church equal status in the Shrine Corporation. In 1976, the lack of funding by the churches for upkeep of the building, plus the desire of the National Park Service to have an adequate auditorium for its winter programs, caused the Shrine Corporation to officially hand over management of the Shrine of the Ages building to the National Park Service.
Today, use of the Shrine of the Ages building is shared between the National Park Service and the Community Church, Baptist Church, Assembly of God, and Church of Jesus Christ- Latter-Day Saints. The halls of the Shrine are always bustling with activity on Sundays, the various churches often having worship services at staggered times and sometimes even simultaneously. Annual community traditions such as the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service are held at the Shrine of the Ages building. Regardless of the controversies that surrounded the Shrine of the Ages project, a wonderful outcome has been a permanent place of worship for churches that serve the Grand Canyon community. This was the goal of the Community Church at its founding, and that goal was finally realized in 1970.
The Partnership of the Community Church and "A Christian Ministry in the National Parks"
In 1951, the interdenominational organization called "A Christian Ministry in the National Parks" (ACMNP) launched its first summer with seminary student recruits to lead worship services in Yellowstone National Park. As early as 1954, ACMNP staff members, consisting of seminary and college students, began arriving seasonally at the Grand Canyon to lead worship services and provide support for the Community Church during the summer months.
Over the years, the Community Church's relationship with ACMNP blossomed, primarily because of their synergy of mission and identity. The resident minister and a lay leader of the Community Church would serve in an advisory role on the ACMNP National Board, providing a voice in the direction and administration of the ACMNP organization. In return, the Executive Director of ACMNP would serve in an advisory role to the Community Church, helping ensure its propagation through the years.
This summer, 16 college and seminary students arrived from all over the United States to lead worship services at sunset every night on the rim of the Grand Canyon, located at the West Rim Worship Site. Their mission is to lead worship and provide Christian witness and support to the Grand Canyon community while living and working full-time as Xanterra South Rim seasonal employees. These students also attend and support the Community Church while serving here, providing music, Sunday School, sermons, and bible studies. The ACMNP students are always a blessing to the Grand Canyon community, and the Community Church is proud to support their ministry every summer.
Today, the Community Church Lives Up to Its Name
The Community Church today remains true to its name - a church that supports the Grand Canyon community in worship, witness and service. Sunday worship services are held at 8:15 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. every Sunday, and weekly bible studies are provided at the parsonage at 7 p.m., held at the parsonage (39 Coconino Street). Sunday School is provided for children during the 11.am. service.
The Church manages the Community Food Bank from the parsonage, providing sustenance primarily for park residents in need. This food bank receives its donations from members of the Grand Canyon churches, the students of the Grand Canyon School, and other community members who desire to ensure the proper care of every South Rim resident. The Community Church also takes an active part in the Christmas Food Basket program and Angel Tree gift programs sponsored by community leaders and Delaware North Companies, providing food and children's gifts for needy families during the Christmas season.
The resident minister also supports National Park Service law enforcement, providing assistance and counseling for individuals or families in crisis.
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