Benicia churches tell their story in museum’s newest exhibit

As they ran out of time to put together one exhibit this month, Camel Barn Museum curator Beverly Phelan and other staff members prayed for inspiration and found a door opening.

They found their latest exhibit by culling the museum’s archives and asking for new donations from

local churches.

The result is “Keeping the Faith — Archiving and Chronicling Benicia’s Religious Heritage” highlighting churches. The show also contains primers on how to preserve historical artifacts.

The exhibit opens today and admission is free. The museum is at 2025 Camel Road. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Admission prices apply after today’s opening.

“This is an extremely fascinating exhibit and demonstrates not just what we have in our archives but how we work with the community,” museum Director Elizabeth d’Huart said.

Churches are typically huge players in a town’s early years and can help tell the community’s tale, she added.

“First, there is the general store and the saloon, but then when the ladies arrive, churches are some of the first things that get built,”

d’Huart said.

Dating back to the town’s earliest days, the museum exhibit includes a Bible, wooden bench and belfry from the 1849 First Presbyterian Church, and an ancient baptism book from St. Paul’s


The First Presbyterian’s successor, Heritage Presbyterian church, hung onto many items, and a few years ago the museum got hold of the belfry, Phelan said.

The Rev. Sylvester Woodbridge organized Benicia’s first church on what is now City Park.

In recent years, several volunteers hauled the belfry down a spiral staircase where it was stored for years at the San Anselmo campus of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, Phelan said.

Meanwhile, the dark wooden pew came from the historic home of long-time Benician James Milburn. he donated three church pews in 1997 as part of the museum’s commemoration of Benicia’s 150th birthday, she said.

Running her hands over the shiny wood, Phelan said the pew held countless Benicians through the years, including many prominent citizens.

“That’s what I like about history. this is something you can touch and say ‘This was here when people of importance were sitting on it.’ “

she said.

A smaller and more ornate church pew comes from St. Dominic’s Catholic Church which also donated a large gold crucifix and chasuble, or vestment, made in France around the 1900s. this was a garment priests wore to celebrate communion.

Several churches represented in the show operate today, reminders and testaments to Benicia’s long and varied history as an early California town.

To represent a full range of faiths in the exhibit, Phelan said she contacted dozens of churches and also sought out non-Christian religions, including those representing Jewish and Muslim faiths. she said the museum found no addresses of religious organizations representing these faiths in Benicia, and added those practicing in these faiths likely went

to Vallejo.

Eight Christian churches responded for the exhibit — Heritage Presbyterian Church, Community Congregational Church UUC, St. Paul’s Episcopal, St. Dominic’s, Northgate Christian Fellowship, First Baptist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Of those, only the Methodist Episcopal Church is gone while other early churches have went but are still operating.

First housing the Dial’s Antiques, the Methodist church at West J and West Second streets, held a spa for

many years.

One of the oldest buildings in Benicia, St. Paul’s Episcopal, functions at the same spot and in the same building. it is like a living, breathing historical artifact, said museum volunteer Judy Furlong, a

church member.

“It’s a gorgeous church and people have a sense of continuity. this institution has been here forever and is still thriving,” she said.

The exhibit also includes a presentation on proper preservation and storage of historical photos, papers and other artifacts. A demonstration of storage techniques will be given at some point in the exhibit.

“This doesn’t have to apply just to churches. It’s vital to know how to archive records,” Furlong said.

Still planning to showcase local Benicia’s African-American history at a later time, the museum is gearing up for a busy year, Phelan said.

Other exhibits this year include a showcase of hats, and displays to commemorate the Girl Scouts organization’s

100th birthday.

Contact staff writer Sarah Rohrs at srohrs@timesherald or (707) 553-6832.

<a href=”,2005:cluster=, 05 Feb 2012 09:11:35 GMT”>Benicia churches tell their tale in museum’s newest exhibit

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