TURLOCK — The knock echoed loudly Sunday afternoon through the sanctuary of St. Francis Episcopal Church. It was the Rev. Chester Talton, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, rapping with his crosier and asking for permission to enter.
His entrance the first by an Episcopalian bishop since 2007 began the Festival Homecoming Eucharist in the church, which until May 31 had been in the hands of an Anglican congregation. That congregation held its final service three weeks ago before giving up its parish property to the Episcopalian diocese and beginning a new church Grace Anglican a few blocks away.
St. Francis was packed Sunday, with about 140 people filling every pew and the choir area, with visitors from Bakersfield to Lodi. The crowd fit the theme of the day, from the opening hymn to the sermon: "All Are Welcome."
"What a joy it is to be here in St. Francis Church," Talton said during his sermon. "This is the church, St. Francis, a part of the Diocese of San Joaquin and a church cannot be divided. We affirm that, praise God."
But division did hit the parish in 2007, when the San Joaquin Diocese and 40 of its 47 parishes, including St. Francis, voted to leave the theologically liberal national Episcopal church. It became the first diocese in the nation to do so and renamed itself and its parishes Anglican, remaining with the worldwide Anglican Communion, to which the Episcopal church also belongs.
Small group remained
A small group of St. Francis members decided to remain with the Episcopal church and met in rented facilities, keeping the original name, St. Francis Episcopal Church. The larger group remained in the parish facility as St. Francis Anglican Church and were aligned with the Fresno-based Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. The church was sued with other parishes in 2009 by the parallel Episcopal Diocese, headquartered in Modesto.
Sunday's service brought joy to those who remained Episcopalian.
"I never thought we would get it back in my lifetime," said Nedra Voorhees, 74, who joined St. Francis in 1966. "We had built a community that didn't need bricks and mortar, but it was wonderful being here."
Vera Sahlstrom, who joined the church in 1964, said the day "was like coming home. All of my family were members here." She turned 94 on Saturday.
"We told her we got her church back for her birthday," Voorhees said.
"I'm overwhelmed with joy," said Leslie Littlefield, another longtime St. Francis Episcopal Church member who broke into tears when asked what the day meant to her. Littlefield's daughter, Claire, was last in the church building at age 11. Now 16, she carried the cross in front of the bishop and priests before the serv-ice.
"I'm so happy to see so many people here," Littlefield said. "I miss my friends (who stayed with the Anglican congregation), but I'm so overwhelmed with joy."
Bruce Fultz said he and his wife, "a cradle Episcopalian," drove from Merced to be part of the celebration. "We wanted to see what it was like to get back into a church," said Fultz, whose home parish, St. Luke's in Merced, also became Anglican after the split. The Fultzes now attend an Episcopalian church in Atwater that draws only about four to 10 people each week.
"I find it troubling that they (the Anglicans) decided to walk away (from the national church)," he said, adding that he doesn't know if St. Luke's will ever return to the Episcopal diocese. "I pray that we do," he said. "It's as God wills."
The Rev. Kathryn Galicia, who was an organist at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Modesto before becoming a priest, has led the St. Francis congregation since 2008.
"I'm just overwhelmed by the number of people and the distances they drove to be here today," she said after the service. "Last week it was nerve-wracking because it was our first serv-ice in the church. This morning it felt like home."
Second handed back
St. Francis became the second Anglican parish to return its property to the Episcopal diocese. The first, St. Paul's in Modesto, relinquished its property in 2009 before a lawsuit was filed. A third parish, the historic Red Church in Sonora (St. James), is scheduled to give up its property this summer. The majority of other parishes as well as the Anglican diocesan property in Fresno are still in litigation.
Talton said it is "wonderful to have (St. Francis) return to the diocese. This community is back in their church. St. Francis can now turn its full attention to mission and ministry.
"It doesn't mean we've been victorious over others, but we have settled our differences. It's a reason to celebrate."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012.