St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in San Mateo, California is one of the oldest stone churches west of the Mississippi. Its history begins in 1864 when the village of San Mateo had a population of 150 people, 25 houses, a railway depot, Roman Catholic Church, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, and a grocery store. To the north was San Francisco and Grace Church, now Grace Cathedral. There were several Episcopalian families in the area, and the Reverend Giles Alexander Easton arrived from San Francisco to conduct the first Episcopal services on April 24, 1864, in the local schoolhouse.
In January 1865, the Reverend Alfred Lee Brewer accepted pastoral responsibilities, building a relationship with the community that was to span 25 years. In June of that year, he approached members of the community to organize a parish and build a church. Agnes Poett Howard, widow of William Davis Merry Howard, and their son, William Henry Howard, donated two acres of land on which to build the church. Much of the cost of construction was assumed by George Howard. In addition, pledges totaling $1,750 were received along with additional gifts from businessmen from as far away as San Francisco. Designs were created for a new church by architect and Vestry treasurer, Albert H. Jordan.
On October 15, 1865, members of the new parish and their families gathered at the construction site of the future church and watched as the cornerstone was laid. The stone contained a Bible, a Book of Common Prayer, an original drawing of the church by architect Jordan, coins, and several newspapers with coverage of President Lincoln’s assassination, the Fall of Richmond, and General Lee’s surrender. This was to be the first of three cornerstones. Construction of the building was completed in seven months, and the church was consecrated on May 23, 1866.
The building’s footprint was 40 by 75 feet with a seating capacity of 200 people. The new church was built of stone that came from the Howard estate, and its entry faced Baldwin Avenue with a north-south configuration. The nave was 48 by 36 feet, and the chancel was 12 by 24 feet. The ceiling was composed of native heart redwood. The organ and vesting room were located at the south end of the building. The nave windows were mullioned with geometric trace work headings. The chancel window at the south end of the church was created in Belgium and crafted and shipped from New York. The north window was made in Germany.
The north end of the church housed a memorial chapel, and a massive marble monument was placed there in memory of William Davis Merry Howard by his widow and their son. The Howard monument stands today in its original position surrounded by the church that was rebuilt around it after the 1906 earthquake.
The Reverend Brewer started St. Matthews Hall (later known as St. Matthews School) in 1865 on a site adjacent to the church and parsonage. The school’s goals aspired to the highest ideals of Christian and secular training. The school for boys adopted a military system for training, discipline, and administration. In one of the rare photographs available, the students are posed in front of the church in uniform. Two of the young men in the center of the image were Hawaiian princes. The school received high ratings throughout the educational community but closed in 1915.
In 1899, the original altar in the sanctuary was moved to Grace Church; it is now located in the Cathedral’s chapel. To replace it, Mrs. Francis J. Caroland donated a new altar in memory of her father, George W. Pullman. The solid sandstone altar that was installed in the sanctuary was designed by architect, Willis Polk.
On April 18, 1906, the city of San Francisco and the greater Bay Area experienced major earthquake destruction. Although it was not demolished, St. Matthew’s Church suffered severe damage, and the Vestry chose to raze the church rather than attempt to repair it. Willis Polk was commissioned to design a new church. Many of the appointments that were in the original church, including the altar, the Howard monument, some of the fixtures, and a few of the windows and the original stone work that survived, were salvaged for the new building. The Reverend Neptune Blood William Gallwey, who became rector in 1904, oversaw the construction through to its completion and was the major force in raising funds to support the endeavor. He was also instrumental in influencing the architect to design a church modeled after churches in Ireland where he was born.
The present church, in gothic style, is built of Sites Sandstone quarried in Colusa County. The identical sets of entry doors were designed by Willis Polk and carved of rosewood. The enlarged nave has stately pews made of oak, and the steps leading to the altar are white marble with choir stalls on both sides. A chapel on the north side offers an arched entry with the Howard Monument still on the same spot, located next to the organ. The sanctuary is surrounded with carved stone and white travertine marble. The carved lace design of the reredo above the altar was built from material salvaged from the original church. The frame of the church is steel and concrete with a plaster façade. The plaster and concrete of the ceiling have been painted to simulate wood. The darker grey stone adjacent to the windows is sandstone. There are eighteen stained glass windows, the majority set in gothic arches. A rose window sits above the north entry. Many of the windows were added over the years through the generous gifts of parishioners, and all but one are memorials.
Ground breaking took place in November 1908, and the original cornerstone was installed on March 14, 1909. The total cost of the new building, including the furnishings, was approximately $100,000. On Whitsunday, May 15, 1910, the new St. Matthews Church now facing east and west was consecrated by William Ford Nichols, Bishop of California. Sadly, eleven days after the consecration, the Reverend Gallwey passed away at the age of 50. He was buried in a crypt under the steps in front of the altar, a fitting tribute to the man who helped make the new church a reality.
During his tenure, the Reverend Gallwey witnessed the creation of three missions: St. Andrew’s church in San Bruno, and St. Paul’s and St. John’s churches in Burlingame. He was involved in the creation of St. Matthew’s Red Cross Hospital (now Mills Hospital) and a nurses’ home. Both were funded by gifts from Elizabeth Mills Reid, a parishioner and daughter of Darius Ogden Mills. Mrs. Reid worked with the Reverend Walter Harriman Cambridge, who succeeded the Reverend Gallwey as rector of St. Matthew’s, to continue the construction of the 50-bed hospital. The style of architecture for the new hospital was French Gothic; it was completed in 1914. The name of the hospital was changed to Mills Memorial Hospital, although the chief benefactor, Mrs. Reid, insisted that the name Church of St. Matthew be retained in the hospital’s title. In 1963, a chapel in the hospital was dedicated to the memory of the Reverend Walter H. Cambridge. That special bond between the Hospital and the Church of St. Matthew continues today.
A new parish hall on the church grounds was completed and dedicated on December 1, 1923. Julia Howard Beylard Hall is used for Sunday fellowship, social events, parish meetings, and by St. Matthew’s Episcopal Day School.
A new organ was dedicated on September 6, 1938. The Crocker Memorial Organ was given in memory of their parents by the children of William H. Crocker and Ethel Sperry Crocker. The organ was created and installed by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company using the pipes and wind chest from the original Hope-Jones organ.
In 1948, a new rector was called to the parish, and St. Matthew’s was in for a period of expansion and growth. The Reverend Lesley Wilder established a new mission in south San Mateo in 1950, now the Church of the Transfiguration. A young seminarian, John Easton, helped the Reverend Wilder to plan and develop that mission. In 1953, the buildings were completed, and the newly ordained Reverend John Easton became the mission’s first Vicar.
In 1953, the Reverend Wilder proposed building a nursery school on the church grounds. The school would be attached to a wing of Julia Beylard Hall and could offer room for thirty children. The Sisters of the Transfiguration, who were about to return to their mother house in Glendale, Ohio, after a number of years in Santa Rosa, accepted the Reverend Wilder’s invitation to start a school at St. Matthew’s. The school, under the direction of Sister Martha Mary, C.T., began with nursery and pre-nursery classes; a kindergarten was added in 1954. In 1955, Sister Grace Elizabeth, C.T., arrived to serve as principal. A plan was developed to add a grade each year until a school with N-K and grades 1-8 was established. In 1962, the Day School began a seventh grade continuing to eighth grade in 1963, bringing the total enrollment to 245. In the 1960s, a campaign was launched to build new facilities to house the school and for church use. The total cost was $375,000 and included church offices, classrooms, a sexton’s apartment, and meeting rooms. The Sisters of the Transfiguration who established the Day School played an important role as instructors to the children and helped influence and shape the lives of their students. They lived in the old rectory now known as St. Charles House on El Camino Real and Second Avenue. The nuns were called back to their mother house in Glendale, Ohio in 1971, but they are remembered for their presence in the school and at Evensong each day. More recently, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Day School was accredited and joined the National Association of Independent Schools. The Day School developed a fundraiser, Dicken’s House, that has been a financial success and provided an opportunity for Parish-Day School teamwork. The annual fundraiser has enabled the Day School to make a significant yearly financial contribution to the parish.
In 1956, the Vestry decided to increase the length of the church to accommodate the growing number of Sunday worshipers, and architect Milton Pflueger was retained to supervise the engineering and design of the extension. The west end of the church was severed, divided, and pushed on rails by hydraulic jacks, one inch at a time, to the planned 30 feet expansion. There was no damage to the windows, and the result was spectacular. This expansion increased the seating capacity by 160 to 466 people. Four new stained glass windows were added to the north side of the nave, and two old windows from the north side were moved to the south side.
During the 1960s, St. Matthew’s experienced record attendance, financial growth, and activity. During this period, the Reverend Wilder invited guest preachers from around the world. One of the most prominent of those preachers, who visited St. Matthew’s on several occasions, was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Arthur Michael Ramsey. On February 25, 1965, Archbishop Ramsey, accompanied by bishops and other prominent leaders of the Episcopal community, celebrated the parish’s centennial in a service that was widely covered by the press.
From its beginning, the church has played a vital role in the local community, and many of the activities of the parish today have their own long histories. The League For Service (the Episcopal Church Women of St. Matthew’s) established the Thrift Shop in 1959, which became a major source of outreach funding. When the parish needed a source of communication in Spring 1962, the Tau Cross became the parish bulletin. The Tau Cross is published by volunteers and covers events, announcements, and issues of interest and concern to parishioners. In the autumn of 1991, Hurricane Iniki damaged the Island of Kauai. The Youth Director, Deacon Leilani Nelson, brought the youth of St. Matthews and several other parishes together and planned a mission to help rebuild the damage from the hurricane. That December, they started the first Christmas Tree Lot and generated enough funds to help finance their mission. The Tree Lot has continued annually to serve a wide range of charities. Dr. Chris Harrigfeld, deacon and retired pediatrician, started an after-school tutorial program, assisting youth from the community. Volunteer tutors from the parish and Day School, assist youngsters who cannot afford tutoring but need a boost in their education.
Since the departure of the Reverend Wilder in 1977, the parish has been ably led by three rectors: the Reverend Jack Cornwall Graves (1979-1984), the Reverend Dr. Donald Stewart Miller (1986-1997), and the Reverend James H. Billington (1999-2005). The parish also had four interim rectors in that same period.
On September 17, 1989, as the country was preparing to watch the World Series, the earth shook once again. The Loma Prieta earthquake was the strongest measured in this area since 1906. The church and other buildings survived but with some damage. The west wall of the nave and other parts of the church required major repairs. Parishioners, under the leadership and tireless effort of Lance Bosschart and Phil Mitchell II, did much of the repair work themselves. The years of deferred maintenance had also taken its toll on the church buildings and grounds. Much of the electrical work and plumbing was in need of replacement. The organ and its pipes were in need of restoration. The stained glass windows were discolored and, in many cases, in danger of separating from their lead frames. To address these needs, multiple fund raising and stewardship campaigns were initiated. These goals were met through a major effort on the part of the Vestry and the various organizations within the parish, and by gifts from generous parishioners. The upgrading of the infrastructure continued, and in 2001 a campaign was started to restore the stained glass windows.
Ross Mainor, a parishioner and craftsman, spearheaded the campaign for restoration of the stained glass windows. He developed an in-depth historic background of St. Matthew’s windows in preparation for a book and to help create a windows restoration fund. He gave tours before and after the Sunday services, and parishioners again gave generously to help the Vestry in the restoration effort. Within three years many of the stained glass windows were removed, sent to Los Angeles for repair and cleaning, and reinstalled.
In 2003, the Rector and Vestry agreed that the church’s debt needed to be retired, and a stewardship campaign was launched. Fund raising efforts continued over the next two years, and the debt was retired in 2005 setting the stage for future growth. A significant gift from the family of former, long-time member and Senior Warden, Ward Krebs, assured the success of the debt-retirement campaign.
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church began as an idea in a little village as the Civil War was coming to an end. Like so many churches and parishes, it has weathered storms, celebrated in happy times, and blossomed into a parish community that has prospered. The many organizations within the parish have supported efforts to continue Christian outreach and in-reach in the community, on a regional, national, and even global scale. Fellowship, education, and future parish upgrading projects are all positive signs of a robust community that is growing as the parish moves into the new century.