A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

October 2002

Auburn-area Churches

by Stan Flewelling


The first Auburn area schoolhouse
was an 1866 log structure
built by the new Methodist group,
and doubled as a church and meetinghouse.

Log school house used as church
A log school house, used as the first church in
the White River Valley, eventually burnt down.
From Glimpses of Pioneer Life on Puget Sound

The colorful mosaic of churches in Auburn today; some large, some small, all reservoirs of good fellowship; conceals how varied and modest were their beginnings. This article (and another to come later) is a quick scan of that mosaic, especially its origins.

Native or Indigenous Belief
Many Puget Sound Native people believed in the Changer, a life force who moved through this world and prepared it for humans. The Changer passed through this area long, long ago, during a time when all of creation walked and spoke the same language, and in other ways acted as human beings do now - even beings who today are animal species, forces of nature, and unseen spiritual powers. The Changer was responsible for arranging the world, as we know it today.

Native religion grows from this belief. It is understood that if a person fasts and seeks it, a spirit guardian may come to them. This guardian shows itself during winter, when the guardian's dance and songs are performed. Even today there are many Muckleshoot people who, during the winter season, dance to honor and display their spirit guardians. This religion is often called the "Smokehouse" religion, because traditionally the dancers perform in a longhouse lit by fire and filled with smoke.

Most European Americans who came to the Valley were already affiliated with one Christian order or another. Religious beliefs infused much of their lifestyles, even influencing the ways they traveled. Wagon trains often debated whether or not they should "lay by" on "Sabbath" days; Sunday, the day of rest. Eventually, most of them agreed that getting to their destination before winter weather set in was paramount.

Once in the White River Valley, the isolation and travel limitations of the farmers made it virtually impossible to maintain old worship traditions. "I have no meetings to [attend]," wrote Harvey Jones to his parents in December, 1854, "and so I spend the Sabbath writing." The following May, Seattle's Rev. and Mrs. Blaine traveled up the White River, exploring the possibility of including the settlement in a preaching circuit. They enjoyed the adventure, but their trek through the densely forested valley was so difficult, they never returned.

Among the newcomers were Thomas and Maria (Smith) Alvord. Several of Maria's siblings also moved to the area and had a vital impact on organized religious activities. In the spring of 1860 at a reception for the newlywed Alvords, Maria's brother-in-law, Rev. D. L. Spaulding, preached the first reported sermon in the Valley. Later that year, Maria's brother, Rev. Rollin C. Smith, organized "union" services which were held now and then at both the Alvord and David Neely homes.

Holy Family Church
Holy Family Church, built 1909.  WRVM #2302

Roman Catholic Churches
Some of the earliest ministry work in the area was conducted on the Muckleshoot Reservation by Roman Catholic missionaries. The first church building in South King County, known as"St. Claire Indian Mission Chapel," was constructed in 1874 on Reservation land by two of the Courville brothers. Early work at the chapel was directed by Father Bolet. Used regularly until the 1930s, the chapel went through several cycles of deterioration and restoration. In the mid-1950s, it was moved to the new Federal Way Shopping Center as a tourist attraction, and returned to the reservation some 30 years later. It is the second oldest extant church building in Washington State.

The first Catholic Church in the Slaughter (Auburn) area was built in 1880 near today's 3rd and R Streets SE. Known as the "Indian Mission Chapel," it was constructed on property donated by Lewis Nelson, a Muckleshoot Tribal leader. The first mass there was said by Seattle's renowned Father Prefontaine. The first resident priest, Father DeDecker, left Slaughter after seven years to found St. George's Indian Mission School near Milton. Use of the chapel languished, and it was finally abandoned in 1907 when Auburn's Holy Family Parish was established by the Archdiocese. The first Holy Family Church was built in 1909 at 22 E Street SW. It served until 1962, when the present parish buildings on 17th Street SE were constructed.

Indian Shaker Church
The Indian Shaker Church has been a mainstay on the Muckleshoot Reservation since 1913. A blend of both Native American and Christian beliefs, the Indian Shaker movement began in 1882 when John Slocum, a Squaxin, had a vision after a near-death experience. Word of his dramatic story spread quickly among Natives of Puget Sound. Slocum's wife, Mary, later experienced unique curative power in a form of shaking, which gave rise to the movement's name. The new religion gained many adherents around the Pacific Northwest and a Shaker Church thrives today on the Muckleshoot Reservation.

Methodist Episcopal Church
Methodist Episcopal Church, built 1908.  WRVM #1136

Methodist Churches
Methodists were the first Protestants to organize congregations in both the White River (Kent) and Slaughter (Auburn) areas. Early schoolhouses usually doubled as church and community meeting houses. The Valley's first schoolhouse (later known as the "Langston School") was built in 1861 near the White River (west of today's King County Journal building in Kent) by Rev. D. R. McMillin. In 1865, Rev. Connington Belknap organized a Methodist congregation there.

Further south, the log home of John and "Grandma" Rachel Ann Faucett served as the Slaughter area's first schoolhouse. In 1865, the area's first church congregation was also organized there through the efforts of Rev. Rollin Smith. The following year, local residents built their first designated schoolhouse, a log structure that also housed the new Methodist Episcopal congregation.

Local Methodists built their first structure dedicated to church use in 1886. The land, located at today's 1st and A Streets SE, was donated by pioneers Levi and Mary Ballard. That building was replaced by a larger one in 1908. The congregation moved to its present building complex at E. Main and N Streets in 1960.

White River Presbyterian Church
White River Presbyterian Church, built 1889.  WRVM #1137

Presbyterian Church
White River Presbyterian Church is the oldest congregation in the Presbytery of Puget Sound. Members organized the church at a meeting called by Rev. G. W. Sloan in 1867 at the Langston School. One of the founders was venerable pioneer Dr. Levi Ballard. For years, the group met in various multi-purpose buildings, usually schoolhouses. One of their early ministers was Rev. George F. Whitworth, the founder of Whitworth College (now in Spokane, but originally located in Sumner).

As Kent and Slaughter were platted and became incorporated towns, valley Presbyterians decided to base a congregation in each village. The Slaughter (Auburn) group kept the name"White River Presbyterian Church" and dedicated its first church structure in 1889. It was built at today's 1st and Division Streets NE on land donated by the Ballard family. A new building was constructed a block to the north in 1922. When the edifice sustained considerable earthquake damage in 1949, the congregation organized another building campaign. The new (and present) church was dedicated in 1960 on 12th Street SE.

Episcopal Church
Episcopal Church, built 1896.  WRVM #247A

Episcopal Church
St. Matthew Episcopal Church in Auburn began as a mission of the Archdiocese of Olympia in 1895. Building on the support of English immigrants with roots in the Anglican Church, parishioners first met in a local home. In 1896, they erected a small church at today's 1st and A Streets NW. Rodney J. Arney, who subsequently studied for the ministry and was rector in Kent for 34 years, conducted the first service in the Auburn church.

The group struggled for several decades, but gradually grew enough to receive its first resident priest in 1949. It remained a mission outreach until 1985. The congregation built a new building at L Street NE between 1st and 3rd in 1959, incorporating the original building into the plan. In 1999, a new building was completed at the same location.

Auburn Seventh Day Academy
Auburn Seventh Day Academy, built c1921. (from 1941 yearbook)

Other Early Churches
Auburn's First Church of Christ Scientist was officially organized in 1914. Alice Shaughnessy was its First Reader. After meeting in a succession of buildings, the group built a new church at 610 Eighth Street NE in 1959.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church is closely tied to the birth and growth of Auburn (Adventist) Academy. The school opened on the Enumclaw Plateau southeast of Auburn in 1919 as "Western Washington Missionary Academy." During its second academic year, the main school building was destroyed in a huge fire. Within the year (1921), energetic supporters built several new buildings to replace it. The school grew to become the largest Adventist boarding school in North America.

In 1924, a "Luther League" chapter was organized in Auburn. The next year, construction began on the Messiah Lutheran Church building at 3rd and E Streets NE. The church grew steadily and built again, dedicating a new sanctuary in 1958 and new education-fellowship hall in 1961 at its new (and present) location: 4th and H Streets NE.

White River Buddhist Church
White River Buddhist Church, built c1925.  WRVM #1155

Buddhist Church
Japanese immigrants first came to the White River Valley in the 1890s. As early as 1901, Japanese Buddhists met in homes under the guidance of Rev. Gendo Nakai, minister of the Seattle Buddhist Church. White River Buddhist Church was organized in 1912, the second Buddhist congregation in King County. They were led by Rev. Kozen Morita, the first resident minister. Initially, the group met in rented facilities in Thomas. In 1917, they purchased six acres of land in Christopher, bought the unused two-room Thomas School building, moved it to their new property, and refurbished it for church uses.

The White River Buddhist Church soon became the leading social and cultural center in the valley for Japanese community activities. The second Japanese Language School in the state had opened at the church in 1913, moving with the church to the new site in 1918. A new and larger assembly hall was added to the site in 1929. Auburn Buddhist Church was built in 1925 as a branch of White River Buddhist Church. This building also hosted a Japanese Language School.

World War II and the forced internment of Japanese Americans suddenly curtailed all activity at the White River Buddhist Church. The few families that returned to the valley after the war revived youth activities at the church, and eventually helped restore a full range of activities. In 1963, the congregation purchased land at Auburn Way North and Meredith Road (now 37th St. NE) and built a new church there.


A second installment covering many other
early Auburn churches will appear next year
in the White River Journal.


Stan Flewelling