By Pat Young
If you could turn back the pages of time, the historic church at the corner of Arizona and Seventh streets in Silver City would offer chapters as colorful as the stained-glass windows gracing its walls. And the story continues.
Years ago, women in hats, gloves and furs and men in top coats would file in to attend services at the First Presbyterian Church. Easter-egg hunts and other social events witnessed girls in petticoats and boys in britches laughing on the lawn.
Today, The 1st Church of What's Happening, as it is now called, belongs to Becky Smith, broker/owner of Smith Real Estate & Property Management. Services are more likely to be quiet meditation by Buddhists and Sufis, or silent worship by Quakers, but the church is still host to a wide variety of events.
In between its transformation from Presbyterian to What's Happening, the stately building has been used as college classroom, youth gym and residence.
"I have always had the sense (since purchasing the church) that I was the caretaker," says Smith. "You don't own buildings. They own you."
The church was a building declared "unstable" and "of little value beyond its bricks and mortar" by church leaders as early as 1937, according to church records. Those leaders are long gone, but the church still stands.
It began as a plan on paper soon after the Presbyterian Church was officially organized in Silver City in 1883, under the leadership of Rev. J. McGaughley, a missionary from Santa Fe. A lot at the corner of Arizona and Seventh was purchased for $800 from Mr. and Mrs. J. A. Miller, and the church was completed in 1886 for $5,000.
From 1894-96, the church was used for classes by New Mexico Normal School (now Western New Mexico University) until the first campus building was completed. Among the church members in the late 1800s was Professor C. M. Light, then president of the school.
A second lot was purchased from real estate magnate Mrs. O. S. Warren in 1899 to build a manse next to the church. Much later, in 1949, an annex was added to the church itself. At the same time, the brick exterior was stuccoed. In the process the main stained-glass window was sealed over with stucco as well. When Smith and former husband Frank Thayer purchased the church in 1978, they uncovered the stained-glass window again during the remodeling process.
There are some long-time Silver City residents with fond memories of the old Presbyterian Church. Christene Billings joined the church in 1932. Mary Packard was also a member in the 1930s, first attending as a "baby in a basket."
Billings, who was baptized and married in the church, says she still has wonderful feelings for it. She recalls one ice cream social, complete with chairs borrowed from a mortuary, Japanese lanterns borrowed from a lawyer's wife, and the church piano carried out to the lawn, that was nearly rained out by a thunderstorm.
"The lanterns were ruined, and the pads on the old piano still stick to this day," she says. "But we had so much fun after the rain stopped that we put it on again the next night."
Billings and Packard both sang in the choir, and during Christmas Vespers, they say, "we really made the rafters sing." When they were young girls, both women added their own individual memorable moments to the Christmas program as well.
"I invariably forgot my lines," Packard recalls. "I felt like people always thought, 'Is that little Brownlee girl going to forget her lines again this year?'"
Billings, on the other hand, remembered her lines, but says one year she "pulled up my dress until my bloomers were showing."
In several written church histories, a 1903 account of a Chinese couple who owned a shop in town, a Mr. and Mrs. Wing Doon, is well documented, perhaps because "not living together in peace" was less common those days. Their "erring ways" were listed in church minutes, and the couple was "moderated" by the minister. The church history states, however, that "there is no record of the results of this 'trial.'"
A few material memories from the old church are still to be found at the new First Presbyterian Church on Swan Street, including some of the old pews, the antique bell cast in 1883, and the old piano. Long gone is the antique pot-bellied stove that once heated the church, and the old pump organ that Billings described as "a real squeaker."
The Baptist church owned the building for a while after the Presbyterians built their new church in 1968. The Baptists used it for a youth gym.
"When we purchased the church, it still had a basketball hoop, a volleyball net and a 1934 snooker table," Becky Smith recalls. She tried to sell the church for months—one prospective buyer wanted to turn it into a warehouse—before she and Thayer decided it would make just the right place to live.
They refurbished the floors and windows, remodeled the bath, uncovered the beautiful stained-glass window, and added a kitchen and a loft bedroom. But they still endeavored to leave it looking very much like a church.
Smith says they even had a "before party" and asked for suggestions after purchasing the church. A few said tear it down and start over. Fortunately for the building, Smith and Thayer spent about $10,000 (their entire "remodeling budget" at the time) to refurbish it instead.
They moved into the church in 1979. Until 2001, when Smith purchased another historic Silver City residence and moved, she called it home. When she and Thayer first moved in in 1979, a few people showed up for church service, but most people recognized it as the unique residence it had become.
Today, The 1st Church of What's Happening again serves as a place of worship, as well as a venue for music and other gatherings.
On Sunday mornings the Gila Friends, a Quaker group, meets for worship in the church. One of the members, Cheryl Speir-Phillips, says the church offers peaceful, positive space for the Quakers, one of the oldest peace churches. They sit in a quiet circle to worship in what Speir-Phillips describes as a "silent expectant waiting on the Lord."
On Wednesday evenings, the Silver City Vipassana Sangha, a Buddhist meditation group, meets at the church.
"It's nice space to meditate in," says Tris Germain, one of the Buddhist members. "And we're very appreciative of Becky that she keeps the church. She's doing a community service."
Two different Sufi groups also meet in the church. On the second Saturday of the month, the Dances of Universal Peace finds Sufi members participating in simple folk-like circle dances that create a state of unity and joy, according to Rabiya Lila Forest, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister as well as a Sufi minister. She explains that Sufi is a "spiritual path that honors light and truth in all spiritual traditions."
On Thursdays, the Silver City Sufi Circle practices "zikr," which means "rememberance" in Arabic. This involves both meditation and movement in order to achieve "a state of unity," with peace as the guiding principle, according to Forest, who leads zikr with two initiators in the Sufi tradition, Rashad Wilson and Darvesha Victoria MacDonald.
Some days, strains of violin music might be heard coming from the church as instructor Wren Winston gives lessons. Winston, an accomplished musician, has been playing the violin since age three. She has had students from age three, including her own daughter, through mid-50s.
"Becky loves to have music happening in that building," Winston says. "It has wonderful acoustics, and it gives (students) a real sense of the power of their music."
Another time, music from a piano recital might be heard, or perhaps that might be Smith herself playing, since she and almost everyone else in her family play the piano and other musical instruments.
The church has been used for seasonal Jewish celebrations, the Silver City Museum's "Victorian Christmas," community concert receptions, discussion and counseling groups, and workshops covering everything from fiber arts to herbs and healing to yoga. It has also been the setting for small weddings and memorial services, as well as for numerous Smith Real Estate events.
Between uses, the church sits quietly, waiting. Wood floors glow in the soft light of the windows. The piano sits covered in an alcove, which also serves as the church library. In the library there is a scrapbook that documents the long history of the building. Among the scrapbook items are handwritten classroom pages, which Smith says they found in the floorboards during the remodeling process.
The loft bedroom, roped off now, is rarely used. There is a narrow back hallway where pet food dishes used to be lined up for Smith's numerous cats when she lived there. A now-latched "cat door" in the back door is further testament to the building's former feline residents.
A spiral staircase added in the residential remodeling leads to the bell tower, now empty except for a large plant basking in the kaleidoscope of light shining through stained-glass windows designed by Thayer.
Furnishings and artwork in the church still reflect Smith's personal touch. "I always knew when I moved that I could never take it all with me," she says.
The outside mirrors the peace of the inside. Stonework gardens and walkways wind around the church. Wide wooden stairs welcome visitors. A simple marquee identifies The 1st Church of What's Happening and displays Smith's phone number (534-9808). She personally handles all bookings.
"The church still has my heart," Smith says. "It still feels like home."
Pat Young is a retired journalist who lives in San Lorenzo.