Carrie Moore, Deseret Morning News
PAGE, Ariz. At Steve and Jean Keplinger's Thanksgiving table, there will be turkey, ham and sauerkraut, mixed with traditional foods reflecting a potpourri of cultures. Nearly 200 people have been invited, and if you happen to show up, they'll squeeze you in somehow.
That the rector of St. David's Episcopal Church has invited his entire congregation to dinner at home is not unusual in this tourist-trade-dependent, desert community. Thursday's modern-day re-creation of the first Thanksgiving will be complete with gratitude served up in large portions for the survival and growth of a tiny church some said had died a long death and would never be resurrected.
They were wrong.
In fact, St. David's has become so vibrant and full of life that a new sanctuary is now under construction, destined to the be the newest of 12 churches that line Lake Powell Boulevard in what may be one of the most diverse small-town faith communities in America.
With a population of roughly 6,800, Page depends on nearby Glen Canyon Dam for survival, not only for life-giving water but also for the life-sustaining tourist trade that caters to Lake Powell visitors: hotels and motels, fast-food outlets, Wal-Mart and watercraft rental-and-repair shops. High season brings lots of jobs and a regular paycheck. Low season means high unemployment and a lot of desperation.
Thanksgiving provides the perfect metaphor for a congregation the Keplingers say has survived and now thrives after more than 40 years of on-again-off-again administration, benign neglect by the former diocese of which it was a part and the travails that go with a shifting population and seasonal work force.
When the couple first rolled into town six years ago, "the lot was so full of tumbleweeds that I sometimes had to wear gloves to push my way through from the vicarage to the church (next door)," the Rev. Keplinger reminded congregants during a groundbreaking ceremony for their new building last summer. "The day we arrived, the door knob came off in Jean's hand. ... We opened the garage door, and it literally split in half. In the bathroom, no water came out of the spigot."
Green water came out of the kitchen faucet, and neither the heater nor the water heater worked. During their first attempt to do laundry, the washing machine blew up. "At that point, Jean turned to me and said, 'What have you gotten me into?"'
Introducing himself to fellow clergy around town, he was often met with "St. What? Oh, THAT church. I thought it went out of business years ago."
During its first half-century, the church's founder was killed in a plane crash. The first full-time vicar was defrocked, and the priest who replaced him was an alcoholic. The Rev. Ken Trickett finally brought some stability to the church in 1984, but he died within three years. The priest who replaced him disappeared in the middle of the night at Christmastime, never to be heard from again.
By 1991, the son of the church's founder returned to shepherd the flock, and congregants were convinced their troubles were finally over. But 18 months later, the Rev. Tim Kazan and his wife were killed in an auto accident.
"The person who offered me this job did not tell me one of those stories until after I said I would come," the Rev. Keplinger recalls.
The Episcopal Diocese of Utah had annexed Page into its boundaries after one official there approached church officials in Phoenix, who said they had no way to provide the resources needed in the border town.
The Rev. Keplinger and his wife were charged with giving the ministry a final go, after church officials in Salt Lake City had decided to give the experiment six months to succeed or they would shut it down.
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