This year, two of Hickory’s most prominent houses of worship celebrate their 150th anniversary. Not sure what was in the air in 1873, but both First Presbyterian and the Episcopal Church of the Ascension established themselves that year and now look back on their histories. Neither are located where they originally began but each has a long history of faith and service to the community. Just last Sunday, the Episcopal Church celebrated with a service remembering its heritage and a display of artifacts marking its path from beginning to today.
Both churches include founders/members who have had quite an impact on Hickory’s development. One of the first was linked to an important American event that turned into literature and ultimately a Hollywood movie.
In 1820, the Congregationalist Church (the established church of the Pilgrims) sent missionaries to the Sandwich Islands to convert the native population to Christianity, at the invitation of King Kamehameha II. One of their missionaries was a young, unmarried woman who read about the church needing volunteers. She applied. There was only one small snag. The church would not let a woman go unless she was accompanied by a husband.
Lucy Goodale refused to let the requirement keep her from the work. She just needed a mate, so she recruited one. Asa Thurston had just finished seminary at Yale and was serving as a pastor in a nearby town. Though they did not know each other prior to their nuptials, they wed and headed off on a five-month ship ride to what we now call the Hawaiian Islands. The couple helped construct churches and schools, spending over 40 years in the harness of ministry.
While there, Lucy developed breast cancer. Treatment of the time (1855) was not all that different from today. She underwent a mastectomy. A huge challenge was the fact that anesthesia had not been developed, however the operation was a success and she lived another twenty years, during which time she wrote a memoir.
While in Hawaii, the couple had a number of children, including Thomas. Born May 9, 1836, the son grew up to follow his parents into the clergy. After First Presbyterian of Hickory (known as Gibbs Mission at the time) formally organized, they called the Rev. Mr. Thomas G. Thurston to lead the church.
The time of Thomas’ tenure in Hickory ended in tragedy. While serving in a half-time capacity with a church in Alexander County, the Rev. Mr. Thurston and his daughter Alice were attempting to ford the Catawba River at Oxford, on their way to Taylorsville in February of 1884. In their third attempt to get across, they were swept down river. It took days for the bodies to be found. Said to be “endowed with unusual ability as a pulpit orator,” he and his daughter were sorely missed by their family and congregation.
Years later, author James Michener discovered the story of Thomas’ parents and their ministry, using it as for a portion of his 1959 historical novel, Hawaii, the same year it joined the Union as the 50th state. The Thurston section of the book was turned into a 1966 film of the same name, starring Julie Andrews in a role based on Lucy.
Both First Presbyterian and the Church of the Ascension have endured over their last century and a half. Each remain important contributors to the strength and vitality of Hickory. Congratulations on 150 and here’s to many more!
Photo: Asa and Lucy Thurston, missionaries, historical fiction inspiration, and parents of the Rev. Mr. Thomas G. Thurston, once pastor in Hickory.