History and Projects page
The Ashland Arts Council is most grateful to the Ashland Historical Society and the Saline Ford Historical Preservation Society for providing this webpage and the Ashland Arts Council – Events Calendar pages These pages make possible the sharing of the history, projects and events,sponsored by the Ashland Arts Council – most of which will take placeat the restored historic St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church ST STEPHEN’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH – NW corner of 16th and Adams – Ashland NE
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was built in 1872, not long after the declaration of Nebraska as a state (1867) and the incorporation of Ashland as a township. It is an architectural jewel, the oldest church building in Ashland today, the only Episcopal church in Saunders County.
In 1979, thanks to the efforts of town historian Alice Graham, the church was accepted into the National Register of Historic Places. Nonetheless, in 1992, after years of struggling to keep the doors of St. Stephen’s open, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska closed the church and sold it the Ashland Arts Council, Inc. (a 501(c)3 corporation) for a total sum of one dollar.
As a result, the church is technically no longer a church. Instead, it has evolved into a community concert hall, a meeting place, a miniature art gallery displaying the works of some of Ashland’s finest artists. Gothic Revival architecture makes St. Stephen’s one of Nebraska’s most handsome early churches, a miniature cathedral patterned after the massive cathedrals of Europe. most notably St. Stephensdom of Vienna, Austria.
It is widely thought, but cannot be proved, that St. Stephen’s of Ashland was designed by the nation’s foremost church architect of the 19th century, Richard Upjohn, who once a year donated plans for a church, free of charge, to some impoverished parish out in wilderness America, on condition that his name not be made known. Because the Ashland church bears a striking resemblance to his own 1865 Church of the Holy Comforter in Eltingville, Staten Island, New York, and because some of the Ashland parishioners hailed from that area, it is assumed that Richard Upjohn was indeed the secret architect.
But the important question is not so much who designed St. Stephen’s as who built it. The church was truly a labor of love, built out of local materials by the blood, sweat and tears of local pioneers. Alice Graham wrote that “the remarkable part of it all is not the design but the skill at shaping so appropriate a design using materials at hand and the crude tools of the frontier to add beauty and grace to a house of worship.”
In the eastern states it was common to set a church on a hilltop or on the highest knoll. Ashland may seem to be perfectly flat, but St. Stephen’s is at the crest of a knoll, at that time the highest point in town. From all four directions a worshipper had to walk up to the church. Symbolism is apparent in every part of St. Stephen’s, and in its furnishings, too.
The organ is very rare and of real value. This beautiful instrument, about ten feet high and surmounted by several gilded wooden pipes, is a reed organ and still in perfect playable condition. The organ cost $137 in 1871. It was shipped by paddle wheel boat up the Missouri River from Chicago to Nebraska City. Then some early Episcopalians drove to Nebraska City via horse and wagon and hauled the organ to Ashland. It has stood in the southeast corner of the church ever since, and was renovated several years ago by Ellis Grauerholz of Ashland.
The Ashland Arts Council has a long way to go to stem the tide of deterioration on this 135 + year old building. Born of a time when the state was young and proud and new, the church met the needs of a people determined to make Ashland their home. At one time, its roster carried the names of the well-to-do and influential – – the Wiggenhorns, Harnsbergers, Churchills, von Mansfeldes. They are gone now, ghosts of the past, mere shadows of the time when the holy bells rang on the knoll of the hill.
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Barbara Ziegenbein of Ashland. Through her persistance & tireless efforts, the Ashland Arts Council and the Saline Ford Historical Preservation Society; now known as the Ashland Historical Society, were born & brought into being.
The Spring 2012 Ashland Arts Council newsletter provides many more details of Barbara’s early efforts.
Looking Over Our Shoulders Volume I : The Saline Ford Saga : Ashland History
Looking Over Our Shoulders Volume II : The Saline Ford Saga : Ashland History Looking Over Our Shoulders Volume III : The Saline Ford Saga : Ashland History Looking Over Our Shoulders Volume(s) I, II, & III : The Saline Ford Saga : Ashland History were authored by GRAHAM, ALICE GILKESON