Old Episcopal Church In Central City Last Of Its Kind

Christ Church Episcopal in Central City, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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March 8, 2018 - 6:45am

150 years ago this year, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska had just been born, a year after Nebraska had become a state. The Union Pacific Railroad had also started its steady march west. A forward-thinking bishop from Chicago used the railroad to spread the gospel and set up a string of small churches along the rail line. One of those churches is still standing, a time capsule of Nebraska’s earliest days.


In Central City, with a population of around 3,000 and not far from Grand Island, Christ Church Episcopal sits just a couple of blocks off Highway 30. This is a familiar place for Cleo Skinner, 86.   

“My grandmother always sat right up there, in that pew right up there,” Skinner said as she pointed to the front of the church. “There (were) nine of us kids. So we filled a couple of pews. When I (came) in and my kids (came) with me, I had seven, so I filled another one. So it’s been a busy place. Baptisms, weddings, funerals, they (were) with this church.”

Christ Church Episcopal in Central City, Nebraska in 1922. (Photo courtesy of Steven Kay)

It’s been in this spot since June of 1874. Most of the wood inside, the pulpit, the paneling on the ceiling and walls and the pews, is just as old. The church was one of a handful built along the rail line between 1867 and 1882 under the direction of Bishop Robert Clarkson, the first leader of the newly formed Episcopal Diocese in Nebraska.

“On the Union Pacific between Fremont and North Platte, this is the only original building left,” said Steven Kay, an attorney in North Platte and a church historian. “The others were demolished. Of course in some of the towns larger churches were built, but this is the only surviving one on the UP route between Fremont and North Platte and it’s really something.”

Bishop Clarkson wanted to use the rails to grow the new diocese. Small churches popped-up in towns like Schuyler, Columbus, Silver Creek, Clarks, Grand Island and Kearney.  Kay reads a letter Clarkson wrote about his plans to spread the gospel.    

Church member Cleo Skinner in Central City, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News) 

“We desire to follow the locomotive with the church and the gospel as rapidly as possible. New towns are springing up along the track and we must be early on the ground. We are trying to place little churches in every town along the line, so that their crosses may be waymarks of the Gospel’s march across the continent.”

Standing with one hand on the old pulpit, life-long Central City resident Tom Wagner is one of about 20 members of the church who still attend weekly prayer services. A priest from Grand Island visits about once a month. Wagner admires Bishop Clarkson’s ability to anticipate the needs of the church and the small towns.

“Nobody knew what the plain states were and they built the railroad, what, four miles a day? How did he know when he started it at the same time they were building that track?” Wagner asked. “I can’t imagine how he had that vision to know how it was going to change the country.”   

Bishop Robert Clarkson. (Photo courtesy of Steven Kay) 

 

Lots for the churches were usually donated by the railroad. Episcopal congregations in the East donated money to help build the churches in Nebraska, with the stipulation that the churches be named after them. A congregation in East Orange, New Jersey donated $300 for the church in Central City. It was a calculated effort to use the rails to build the diocese.

“The church used mass transportation as a foundation. They knew that the towns were going to grow where the mass transportation was,” said Jo Behrens, a retired history professor and historian for the Episcopal Diocese in Omaha.   

She spends a lot of her time studying the history of the church in Nebraska and says the railroads donating land for churches was somewhat self-serving. They knew in order to have a viable town, they had to have churches. At the same time, Bishop Clarkson and others saw that need as an opportunity.

North Platte attorney and church historian Steven Kay. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“They knew that if they could get a church in there, the town would grow. So that’s the mentality,” Behrens said. “I don’t know which comes first, the chicken or the egg in terms of Clarkson or any other bishop. They’ve got a flock. The flock is establishing very small communities. Those small communities need churches and civic buildings to look like they’re viable and you’re going to want to move,” she said. 

Back inside the tiny church in Central City, Cleo Skinner looks around a sanctuary that’s still holding on after 136 years. Her sense of humor is still intact, along with the pews she sat on as a young girl.  

“We used to have things here for a choir, but we don’t have a choir anymore. We’re lucky to have members,” Skinner said with a laugh.  

She still comes to church every week when she can, a part of her life that hasn’t changed much over years.

“It’s my history. It’s my life you know. I think as you get older, these memories mean more than when you’re younger,” she said.

It’s history that started with the dreams of a young bishop, tiny churches and a rail line through the heart of Nebraska.

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