By Joshua Wood, Cowboy State Daily
Wyoming was still eight years from becoming the 44th state in the Union when the first cornerstone was laid at France Memorial United Presbyterian Church in Rawlins.
This past Monday, that cornerstone, now 140 years old, was commemorated.
Pam Thayer, director of the Rawlins Downtown Development Authority, told Cowboy State Daily that the church has served as a cornerstone of downtown Rawlins.
For over a century, France Memorial United Presbyterian 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 church school was added in the 1950s.
“Stylistically, France Memorial is similar to other Gothic Revival churches constructed in Wyoming during the late 19th century,” reads the 1983 nomination form for the building. “Many ecclsiastical structures such as France Memorial constructed in mid to late 19th century America featured elements of Gothic Revival such as pointed arches, lancet windows, and steeply pitched roofs.”
“When you walk in, you’re just kind of in awe of the ceiling and the lighting. It’s very traditional but it’s very understated,” said Thayer. “Some churches you go into and they’re really ornate and this church has its own little feeling of understated elegance.”
Back To 1869
Though 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 all congregations. About 10 years later, members of the church began discussing construction of a new church.
The first church was sold for $300 and moved off the lot. It spent three years as a school house, then as a home. For 20 years, it housed the Rawlins Republican before finally being sold to the Engstrom Motor Company and was torn down in 1926.
The total cost of the building was $7,800, or $226,200 in 2022 counting for inflation. The congregation didn’t have enough funds to cover the construction costs, so a mortgage was negotiated with James France. By 1885, enough money had been raised—the bulk of it from France—to pay off the mortgage.
Due to France’s contribution to the construction of the church, it was renamed after his wife. The Mrs. Elizabeth France Presbyterian Church then became the France Memorial United Presbyterian Church.
It was built for a Presbyterian service, but the building is now home to Victory Baptist Church.
Pastor Mark White returned to Rawlins earlier this year to lead the church.
“Back 10 or 20 years ago, we lived here. I was a part of another ministry organization in the area. We left to pursue other ministry opportunities and I was voted in as the new pastor in March,” said White. “Trying to make housing arrangements, I actually arrived in Rawlins about June 15.”
White, due to his previous time in Rawlins, had some familiarity with the building and was aware of its general age. The answer to exactly how old the building was, however, was literally carved in stone. The cornerstone of the church.
“I just started doing some online research into that and found that the cornerstone was laid on July 25, 1882,” said White.
White said he had reached out to the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office to determine if the church wasn’t just the oldest in the county, but the oldest in Wyoming.
“They did a real quick search of all the church buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places in Wyoming and this was the oldest that they found,” said White. “That doesn’t prove that it’s the oldest one in Wyoming.”
It is likely 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, the construction of St. Mark’s at 1908 Central Avenue was started in 1886 and completed in 1888.
At an earlier time, however, St. Mark’s was elsewhere in Wyoming’s capital city. According to the Historical 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 be getting a facelift in the future.
“After 140 years, there’s definitely some wear and tear and some changes on the building,” said Thayer.