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In late March 1903, Fairbanks Saloon and its Jewish owner hosted a first for the gold camp’s sprouting alongside the Chena River.
While there were many disillusioned miners in 1903, that day witnessed the Rev. Charles Rice raise $1400 from the assembled miners and trappers. The donations paid for the purchase of land, which, within a year, provided foundation for a hospital and what’s known today as St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.
This spring St. Matthews Episcopal celebrated the 112th anniversary of that enduring saloon community service.
Before the Rev. Scott Fisher led the commemorative Prayer Service, he shared several stories about Rice’s journey from Circle City, on the Yukon River, with his Athabascan guide, Esias Joseph.
Fisher asked everyone to imagine what it must have been like for Rice to hold that first service in the tent-sheltered tavern, owned by Cy Marx.
Marx, who was Jewish, pitched in the first $10 towards the collection meant to seed the house of prayers, according to a 1939 Time Magazine article.
Fisher used the Fifth Sunday of Lent readings, from the 1892 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, for the anniversary service. The local anniversary commemoration arose, he said, from his own interest in the history of Fairbanks.
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As both a priest and a historian, Fisher said that he has included significant local historic events in sermons and in planning celebrations. He sees it as a significant part of his ministry to the people of St. Matthew’s parish and all of Fairbanks.
The commitment to having a church in Fairbanks by Episcopal missionaries in the early 1900s brought more than just religion to the area. From nurses who started the first hospital in Fairbanks, to the Sunday night services that often included many sled dogs scratching at the door, Fisher said that choosing to have night services was just one way that the Episcopal missionaries met the needs of those early miners coming into Fairbanks.
Fisher has been the rector at St. Matthews for almost 25 years, and this was the last time he will lead the anniversary service in that capacity. He hasn’t announced what his plans are for the next phase of his life, but it’s his intention to leave St. Matthew’s by September.
That announcement came at the end of the church’s Annual Meeting earlier this year. It isn’t etched in stone.
Fisher reserves the option of changing his mind:
— if God so directs.