At 150, Salt Lake City’s First Presbyterian Church strives to be the ‘hands of Jesus’

From Utah’s “Mother Teresa” to other members, service to the poor, hungry and homeless remains the soul of the congregation.

Salt Lake City’s First Presbyterian Church takes pride in its 150 years downtown, where it grew from a dozen worshippers first meeting inside an 1871 livery stable to more than a thousand who marched to the first services at its English-Scottish Gothic Revival cathedral in 1905.

Indeed, in that initial quarter century, despite doctrinal differences, First Presbyterian’s zeal for public education also earned the Protestant congregation a welcome from the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Presbyterians founded what later would become Westminster College, along with 36 mission schools and four academies that taught an estimated 50,000 children — many of them from Latter-day Saint families.

That’s a fine historical foundation, but interim Pastor Steve Aeschbacher says it is the future of First Presbyterian — striving to stay true to its devotion to biblical study as well as its ecumenical approach to shared gospel principles of serving the poor, hungry and homeless — that will define his church in the decades ahead.

“One of the great things about ministry here is that spiritual things are ‘on the agenda’ for people in a way that they are not in other areas,” says Aeschbacher, who was chosen as interim pastor after the Rev. Michael J. Imperiale retired in June 2019 (a permanent replacement has yet to be named). “Our congregation has a long history of cooperation with other faiths [and] with many local groups to serve the needy, including St. Vincent DePaul, Crossroads Urban Center, the Utah Food Bank, and more.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Retired Pastor Mike Imperiale greets addresses his congregation at First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City during the start of services in June 2019.

Indeed, for decades it has been longtime First Presbyterian member Pamela Atkinson who is the public face — and arguably one of the most effective vocal advocates — for feeding, clothing, sheltering and finding medical care and employment for Salt Lake City’s homeless and refugee communities.

A child herself of the London slums, Atkinson worked hard to gain an education and served as a nurse in her native England and Australia before emigrating to the United States. She retired in 2002 as vice president of mission services at Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare.

Some “retirement.” By the time she left Intermountain, Atkinson had already joined with fellow First Presbyterian congregants as regular volunteers at downtown Salt Lake City’s St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall. Soon, she converted a basement room in the church into Pamela’s Closet, gathering donated clothing and hygiene items.

That was 19 years ago, and Atkinson — dubbed the “Mother Teresa” of Utah — still makes sure to replenish a cache of scarves, warm coats, socks, hats and gloves in her car for “when I see my homeless friends out on the street.”

��A very friendly church’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pamela Atkinson shares a hug at the Fourth Street Clinic in 2016.

A steady stream of Pamela’s Closet items also finds its way to Catholic Community Services, The Road Home, Crossroads Urban Center, the Ronald McDonald House, Volunteers of America and other organizations. All that is made possible by a small army of First Presbyterian members who pitch in to help Atkinson.

Among them are Wayne and Beverly Simpson, members of First Presbyterian for more than 50 years. Indeed, they met in the church’s youth group — Wayne having been born Presbyterian, and Beverly, raised Catholic, having ventured down the street from the Cathedral of the Madeleine.

“First Presbyterian is a very friendly church [and] full of people who come from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs,” Beverly says. “We say our mission is to ‘love God, love one another, love neighbor, and make disciples.’”

For the past 15 years, Beverly has managed Pamela’s Closet, seeing its outreach expand from its foundational clothing and hygiene donations to assisting homeless, refugee and low-income families with financial and medical emergencies.

Wayne has served as a church elder several times, his duties ranging from heading up youth mission trips to making home repairs for the elderly, to helping oversee the church’s multimillion-dollar restoration project in 2004. Yet he is especially grateful for the years he and Beverly have shared in their church’s charitable outreaches, beginning 20 years ago in regularly ladling out food at downtown soup kitchens.

So how else would First Presbyterian Church mark its sesquicentennial than to find new ways to help Salt Lake City’s less fortunate? How about launching an interfaith campaign to offer 150 “home-warming kits” to help people who have gotten off the streets and into more permanent housing?

“The kits include toilet plungers, garbage cans, bedding, cleaning supplies, kitchenware,” Wayne explains, “really pretty much everything you need [to move in] when you don’t have a lot of stuff.”

The heart of Christianity

(Courtesy photo) The Rev. Steve Aeschbacher, interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City.

Such community outreach and service are at the heart of Christian faith, Aeschbacher says. Still, continuing worries over COVID-19 — which has slowed the full-fledged return to in-person worship, while paring down the popular annual Scottish Festival to outdoors and limited access to the accompanying Kirkin’ o’ th’ Tartan service to livestreaming — have convinced church leadership to postpone the official, bigger celebration for its 800-plus congregation to sometime in 2022.

“COVID was — and to some degree still is — very disruptive to our normal way of ‘doing church,’” Aeschbacher acknowledges. “While we are worshipping in person now, we continue to offer online and streaming options; some people still do not feel comfortable returning to in-person [meetings].

“But we are made to be in community together — to worship, to play, to study, to pray, to eat,” he adds. “So I can’t wait until we can do all those things in person, without restrictions or worry.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Scots Pipe Band performs at the First Presbyterian Church's annual Scottish Festival in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021.

Atkinson takes such concerns in stride, noting her confidence in First Presbyterian’s future as a church family that embraces both its membership and its community at large.

“Our next 150 years will see us working much more outside the walls. Our people’s faith will be strengthened by the fellowship and Bible studies inside . . . but also by stepping up to the plate to help refugees,” she says. “After all, we are the hands of Jesus Christ in getting his work done in our community.”

Ecumenical praise

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) The east-facing stained-glass window at First Presbyterian Church on South Temple in 2013.

In congratulating First Presbyterian on its century and a half in Utah, Catholic, Episcopal and Latter-day Saint leaders look forward to more years ahead of fellowship and joint charitable endeavors.

The LDS Church lauds the First Presbyterian Church’s “mission to love God and love our neighbors” as having “blessed the lives of Utahns and given so much to our communities through religious, cultural and educational programs.”

“The [First Presbyterian] Church building is instantly recognizable and an historic jewel in Salt Lake,” the statement adds. “Our two faiths have enjoyed a long and respectful dialogue, and we look forward to a continued relationship.”

Deacon Scott Dodge, of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, hints that First Presbyterian (dedicated in 1906) and the Cathedral of the Madeleine (dedicated in 1909) foreshadowed their future good relations.

“The proximity in both time and space of these two churches serves as something of a tangible sign of what I’ve taken to calling the ‘inherent’ ecumenism that exists among Utah’s Catholic and Protestant communities,” Dodge says. “Given that Christians are united by baptism, maybe the proximity [of the two cathedrals] can serve as a reminder that the Church of Christ itself is a sacrament.”

That sentiment is echoed by the Rev. Scott Hayashi, Episcopal bishop of Utah, who praises both the “beauty of the First Presbyterian Church on South Temple” and its “Christian impact” since its 1871 founding.

“On this 150th anniversary of [their] congregation,” Hayashi says, “may we also know the tremendous outreach and spiritual work of our Presbyterian neighbors.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021.