Rev. Eleanor Ellsworth of the historic St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church presented the original deed to the seaside church, as well as a number of other historically significant documents.
Ellsworth made the presentation to the society’s board of directors for caretaking on Sept. 24.
During a churchwide cleanup effort in July, church staff member Walter DuMelle stumbled upon boxes of decades-old documents in one of the church’s storage rooms.
“A bunch of boxes had been put aside for shredding, and I just thought it wise — because they were from a particularly old part of our archival storage — to give it a once-over before it went to the shredder,” DuMelle said.
Almost immediately, he recognized the importance of the documents in his hands, some of which were more than 100 years old.
“It became clear pretty quickly that these things needed a thorough going-through because my hands were touching documents from the 1920s almost instantly,” he said. “The folder of deeds popped out in a rather large way.”
After bringing the documents to Ellsworth, she realized at once that DuMelle had stumbled upon a treasure in need of long-term preservation, which is how the documents came to travel across the street to the Wisteria Cottage, where the historical society preserves stacks upon stacks of La Jolla’s history in an archival storage area.
“With Rev. Eleanor Ellsworth’s keen perception of the value of these documents and the historical society’s willingness to become involved, we feel very fortunate to have reconnected with these documents of our past, helping to connect the dots of our more than 100 years of history,” said DuMelle.
More than just a single piece of old paper; the society’s board inherited a peek into the longstanding history of the church and its property.
“Originally, we were expecting one deed for the property, but what they found was this collection of documents pertaining to the history of this lot,” said historical society archivist and curator Michael Mishler. “It looks like the initial one is from 1903, where Ellen Scripps is deeded the property that appears to be where St. James is.”
Additional documentation given as a durable loan to the historical society includes: a legal agreement for the sale of another portion of the present-day church’s property to Ellen Scripps’ half-sister, Virginia Scripps in 1911; a quitclaim deed from 1929 when Ellen Scripps gave the property to St. James Church; documentation requiring San Diego architect Louis Gill to be the draftsman of the building; a 1937 insurance policy on the property; and paperwork from the 1980s showing updates to the property over the years.
“The purpose of an archive is to preserve vital documents that show the history of the community,” said Mishler. “These are a great link to that kind of old history. It shows how the Scripps family was involved in this community, and it shows St. James’ history in the community.”
Among St. James’ archives are also hundreds of military papers with a series of correspondences between the church’s spiritual leaders and servicemen and women at war in the 1940s.
“It’s this wonderful archive of letters going back and forth,” said DuMelle. “The story of a church is the story of its people and its families, and the warriors were a very important part of that, especially as San Diego connection to the Pacific Campaign.”
Although many more hours of perusing old documents lie ahead for DuMelle, his dedication to the task will undoubtedly help shed light on more history within the church, within the La Jolla community and beyond.
“I think we found the real jewels, but I think there are some just as equally relevant documents fleshing out the St. James story with real names and real faces with some of the previous rectors and administrations.”
Mishler indicated his hope that the historical society will systematically gather similar documents that represent the history of other organizations, churches and universities in La Jolla to help continue piecing together the many facets of La Jolla’s history little by little.
“Those things that talk about what the organization did, who was involved, board meeting decisions initiatives they made — any of that boring stuff about running a business is really what an archivist is looking for because it shows how an organization got its start,” he said. “All these groups help build the history of a community. You get a fuller picture of the history of La Jolla.”