The rich history of St. John in the Wilderness begins nearly 160 years ago — just before Minnesota was admitted as the 32nd state in the Union. The story begins in the worldwide panic year of 1857 in the “Old Bailey” criminal court of England with the sentencing of Sir John Paul to 14 years of exile in Australia for misappropriation of funds in his bank with regard to some Danish bonds. Sir John’s only son Aubrey felt so disgraced that he also quit England and was determined to make his home in a country not ruled by Great Britain.
With his wife Laura, Aubrey ventured to the United States eventually settling in the tiny community of White Bear Lake, Minnesota. When the young couple arrived at White Bear they decided to drop the “Paul” from their name and became known as John and Laura Aubrey. Without betraying their origin, they settled in the local community on equal terms with the rough men of the frontier and competed with Indians in pursuit of game.
However it was Mrs. Aubrey who made the greatest and lasting impression in the tiny village. Laura had a splendid education and was a member of the Church of England. She became the first teacher in White Bear, teaching first in her own home and later in a log school house. Mrs. Aubrey also organized a Sunday School and occasional church services in her home but soon attempted something more. She was determined the community should have an Episcopal Church and set about raising construction funds.
Mrs. Aubrey asked friends in England for assistance and raised nearly $1000.00 by that method. Then she organized a church raising bee, interesting even Indians in the work. The Aubrey’s provided the land from part of their farm which is now the location of the Church Cemetery. Laura had the satisfaction of seeing the completed church dedicated by Bishop Whipple, the first Bishop of Minnesota, on August 29, 1861. St. John’s was the first church in the White Bear area.
In 1868, John and Laura received word of the the death of John’s father and returned to England to assume the baronetcy title as Sir Aubrey John and Lady Paul. It was only then the residents of White Bear learned that for 10 years they had been associating with titled aristocracy. Her lasting monument is St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopal Church.
After the Civil War, the tiny village of White Bear began to grow as a fashionable resort town on the northwest side of White Bear Lake. The Church decided it should move closer to the center of the growing new town. In 1874, The Rev. George A. Keller was successful in raising $300 to purchase land at the corner of First Street and Clark Avenue. In March of that year, the building was moved from its foundation and pulled across frozen White Bear Lake to its present location where it was used until 1925.
The congregation outgrew the small structure and in May of 1925, the old church was deconsecrated and demolition was begun. Some of the timbers and planks were salvaged to build a summer cottage on the lake shore. A little over a year later, the Rt. Rev. Frank A. McElwain dedicated the present church on June 20, 1926. Many items from the old church were incorporated into the new structure with the most prominent being the baptismal font and the splendidly carved wooden eagle on the lectern. The church bell was also move to the new bell tower.
A little over 20 years later, the mortgage having been paid in full and there being no financial obligations on the church building, the church of St. John in the Wilderness was consecrated on Feb. 22, 1948. The building has remained debt free to the present time. In addition to the beautiful worship space, the building included a two story parish hall. On the second floor was an open auditorium with a stage were many dances, skits and shows were held. On the main floor was a dining hall and a kitchen.
Expanding the Church
In the post war growth the 1950’s, White Bear experienced a tremendous population increase which also affected St. John in the Wilderness. It became obvious the church had outgrown its parish hall (three Sunday Services eased the space crunch in the church). In 1959, land east of the church was purchased and a successful capital funds drive secured funds for the erection of a new parish hall, education wing and renovation and remodeling of the old parish hall. The new wing was dedicated in 1961.
St. John in the Wilderness provided a rectory for the priest from 1910 to 2001. The first rectory was a small house directly across First Street from the church. A new rectory was built in 1964 which abutted the church cemetery (close to the site of the original location of the church). St. John’s was one of the very few churches in the diocese to provide housing for the priest. When Father Joe Campbell moved from the rectory to a town house, the church decided to sell the rectory rather than to rent and maintain the property.
The Music in the Wilderness
The original “pump” organ was replaced by a three rank pipe organ in 1939. The pump organ is in the Fillebrown House which is maintained by the White Bear Historical Society. 1984 saw the dedication of a new 14 rank Patterson organ. The installation of this instrument was plagued with problems that continued for the life of the organ. First the company went bankrupt and a new builder had to come aboard midstream. Throughout its life, the organ was plagued by gremlins at the most inappropriate times.
St. John contracted with Casavant Freres for a new organ that was first played in worship in August of 2000. Formally dedicated on Oct. 1, 2000, the Casavant fills the second level of the bell tower. “An instrument of 19 stops, St. John’s organ is remarkably versatile, colorful and rich in contrasting timbre.” (Dr. David Gehernbeck, organist & choirmaster, St. John in the Wilderness). Today there are two choirs at St. John’s: The Chancel Choir sings at the traditional service, and the Worship Team sings for the Family service.
A more extensive history of St Johns, compiled by John W. Johnson, can be downloaded as a PDF file by clicking here.