"Of all the historic structures on Lopez Island, none is more beautiful, nor more beloved, than Center Church. Now a candidate for the National Historic Registry, the old building serves as a focal point for the community, and stands as a reminder of the past, Center Church was begun in 1887 on a small hilltop overlooking Center Valley, adjoining the Union Cemetery. The construction work was done by volunteers, and the lumber was brought in by Dan Barlow on the schooner Henrietta, owned by his father, Captain Billy Barlow.
It took almost two years to complete the building, but even before it was finished, the church began to serve the community. A social to raise money for an organ was held over a year before the building was completed, and the first funeral was held there in early 1888, with the Reverend T. J. Weeks preaching the sermon. Weeks, an Englishman who arrived on San Juan in the early 1870’s and served the US soldiers at American Camp, was the first resident clergyman in the islands. Sporting huge, mutton chop, sideburns and a clerical collar, he presided over the Presbyterian Church on San Juan, but traveled wherever he was called to perform weddings, funerals or baptisms.
Weeks also presided over the ceremony when Center Church was dedicated in 1889 an event of sufficient magnitude that a large crowd gathered, including many visitors from Orcas and San Juan. Even the members of the Coast Survey crew, then camping at Shoal Bay while they charted the islands, showed up for the occasion.
Drawn by the ringing of the bell in the Gothic tower, parishioners beaded for the church for regular services and special occasions, usually on foot. "Everybody walked in those days,” says historian Nancy McCoy of the Lopez Historical Museum, “and they thought nothing of it to walk across the island to visit someone, or to go to church.” In fact, it created something of a stir when James and Amelia Davis and their family arrived one Sunday in a splendid four seat phaeton wagon, drawn by a team of Percheron draft horses.
The Church stood as a symbol of joy hosting weddings and baptisms and also of sorrow, on the somber occasions of funerals. When John Hall died of gunshot wounds inflicted during the locally infamous “shivaree shooting” - just weeks after the dedication of the Church - 12 of the island’s young men carried the body two miles from the family home, working in shifts of four. After reaching the Church at midnight, they stayed until morning, as custom dictated, to mourn their lost friend. As the island grew and prospered, shipping fruit, hay and grain to Whatcom, Seattle and beyond the congregation of Center Church also grew. Reverend Weeks (who was, by the way, no relation to the Weeks family on Lopez) preached his last sermon there in 1891, and was followed by a series of resident ministers.
None seemed to stay long, however. Despite the boom in farming, Lopez was still a backwater. “This wasn’t an attractive place to work,” McCoy says. “The pay was extremely low, it was isolated, and the people were poor.” The job was also sometimes hazardous. Dr. Isaac Dillon, a Methodist preacher who arrived around the turn of the century, apparently drowned in Upright Channel when the skiff he regularly rowed from Port Stanley to Newhall (Rosario) to conduct services, capsized in a storm. The empty vessel was discovered, still floating, in the Channel, but no sign of the Reverend Dr. Dillon was ever found.
Trying to find a way to attract and keep preachers, the congregation which by now had reorganized as the Congregational Church, and added a Sunday school built a parsonage on the hill overlooking Richardson. They managed to recruit the Reverend Edwin Ireland in 1903, but he departed in 1908, perhaps worn down by a schedule which included preaching at Center Church, the Church in the Village, and the Mud Bay Schoolhouse every Sunday, plus once a month on Shaw.
Over a dozen ministers followed Ireland, some lasting less than a year, despite an agreement between the Methodist and Congregational churches which provided for shared duties and an annual salary of not less than $700.
In 1932, as the island’s population declined in the hard times of the Great Depression, the Methodists withdrew from the agreement. The Congregationalists pressed on, but were soon forced to sell the parsonage to a local farmer for the sum of $123. By the Second World War, the Church was dependent on a minister from Friday Harbor, who flew over to hold services. In order to make it more convenient for him, the services were held in the Village, and old Center Church was reduced to holding occasional weddings and funerals.
It stayed that way until 1965, when the Lopez Cemetery Association acquired the deed to the Church, and slowly began to improve the old building. A new carpet was installed, along with a new roof and the large, stained glass window donated by Robert Reese and Charlotte Paul.
In the early 80’s, under the direction of Nikki Giard and Barbara Pickering, the Lopez Island Cookbook was created as a fund-raiser, and the sale of over 10,000 copies helped pay for a well, new pews, cupboards, carpet and the restoration of the original woodwork.
Today, Center Church once again serves the community as the site of church services, weddings, funerals, choral concerts and Christmas caroling."
-- The Islands Weekly Article by John Goekler, published 2/28/1995