Rediscovering St. Paul’s

The most beautiful building in Benicia is a church, St. Paul’s, at the top of First in Old Town. This grand old house of God with its heart redwood paneling, stained glass windows and hand-crafted vaulted ceiling is a must-see stop for every tourist who comes to town.

So, admittedly, it may seem a bit odd to feature St. Paul’s in a column entitled “Hidden Benicia.” Hidden, it is not.

Nevertheless, there are lots of “small, little details that most people don’t know about,” as Rev. Annie told me in a tour of the building one recent afternoon. And fascinating details they are, indeed.

Rev. Annie, as she likes to be known, is the charming and personable rector of St. Paul’s.

Her business card reads, “The Rev. Annie Pierpoint Mertz,” but that’s a bit overly formal for the 37-year-old married mother of two, who also coaches her son’s soccer team here in town.

Dressed on the day we met in jeans, sneakers, and a black clergy shirt with a white collar, Rev. Annie professes not to know as much about St. Paul’s as the church’s official archivist, but she knows quite a bit. She walked me through some of its many noteworthy features, beginning with:

  • That spectacular ceiling, built by Norwegian shipwrights in the 1860s. “Some people think it was an actual ship that was brought in and repurposed for the church,” she explained. “But no, it was built on site, tailor-made by shipbuilders” who crafted it like the hull of a ship, only upside down.
Rev. Annie at St. Paul's
  • The stained glass windows. There are many beautiful ones. The oldest are the two Harlequin windows, which date from the Civil War. “During the war there was not enough metal to go around,” she said. “So they used wooden cames to hold the glass sections in place.” One of the Harlequins has been restored, and the wood replaced. The other still has the original “cames,” the term for what holds the pieces in a stained glass together.
  • The altars. There are two; one is in the transept, the area that crosses in front of where the congregation sits. The building of St. Paul’s has remained more or less in its current form since 1886, and this altar hails from those days. The other altar is located in the sanctuary and has sliding cabinets built into it. Inside those cabinets are the ashes of former members of the congregation who have passed away.

Rev. Annie will stand behind this altar during a service, feeling inspired by the presence of “all my folks,” as she calls them, interred in the cabinets.

Also providing silent support for her is the beautiful stained glass at her back, which was donated long ago by a St. Paul’s patron in memory of his two-year-old daughter who had died.

From this position she can see the entire congregation and look across them to the back wall where there is yet another beautiful stained glass. This one is a dramatic rendering of St. Paul in the pivotal moment when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and his life began anew.

Despite all the beauty and history of St. Paul’s (and there are many more fascinating little details to be seen there), the building is not what drew Rev. Annie to Benicia four years ago to become the church leader.

Rather, she said, “what became abundantly clear was that people are the heart and soul of this church. The building is just a container. This is a community that worships in a beautiful old building, but they’re not owned by it. And there have been lots of people who have shared this space over the years.”

It’s not the building, it’s the spirit of the people in it.

This is true for St. Paul’s Episcopal and the other churches all across town. This may be a good time to discover—or rediscover— the fascinating things that can be found inside one.