For one morning a year, a 19th-century landmark becomes a place to celebrate the story of Jesus rising from the dead while watching the rising of the sun.

Easter Sunday dawned over the historic White Barn as 20 people gathered inside the restored carriage house, some of the first worshipers to mark the holiday in the Napa Valley.

Within a plank-floor room lit only by the frosted glow from a pair of windows, members of St. Helena United Methodist Church immersed themselves in hymns and Bible verses retelling the Easter narrative of sacrifice, crucifixion and new life – against a backdrop of vineyards and oaks as evocative in their way as sanctuaries of stained glass and stone arches.

“You’re doing something special you don’t do every week,” said Wendy Johnson, one of those attending the 6:30 a.m. worship. “It’s just lovely and it really brings hope to you.”

It was a simple and unpretentious setting for one of the holiest of occasions – but for the leader of the sunrise service, more spiritually powerful for all that.

“I find it’s a very inspiring way to begin Easter,” said Pastor Burke Owens of the St. Helena Methodist congregation. “There’s something very special about this way to welcome the day, to welcome the beginning of a new season in the church. It’s refreshing to know that religion can be found not only in a church setting, and to break out of that setting is invigorating for the individual and the church too.”

Ensconced in the vineyards at the end of Sulphur Springs Avenue, the White Barn dates to 1872, when it was built as a carriage house on the winery estate of Erasmus Keyes, a general during the Civil War. Its grounds in later decades were the site of daybreak Easter worship, according to Jennifer Garden, whose parents David and Nancy purchased the property in 1972 and converted its loft into a 75-seat music performance center in the 1980s.

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Holiday services in the past were outdoor affairs uphill from the carriage house, accompanied on at least one occasion by the gobbling of wild turkeys that strolled among worshipers, she recalled.

But the custom had gone dormant for about a decade before Owens, after becoming minister of the St. Helena church two years ago, first celebrated Easter morning inside the White Barn in 2018. The White Barn service was one of at least two in Napa County to take place at first light Sunday, along with a gathering of Napa Methodist Church at Tulocay Cemetery.

“It’s nice to have it continue and grow anew,” said Garden. “We’re happy to have it return to a spiritual place again, because the spirit of music is akin to the spirit of religion.”

On Sunday morning, church was a wood-lined downstairs space about 20 feet square, the pews replaced by three rows of folding chairs and a back row of wicker seating. Behind a broad table bearing the Communion bread and sacramental wine stood Owens, whose blue vestments slowly took on the glow of the climbing sun filtering through the narrow windows.

The visceral feeling of witnessing a literal dawn while celebrating the story of Jesus’ rise from death sank into visitors like Tim Byer, who with his wife Lynda would also attend the St. Helena church’s main Easter service later that morning at its Adams Street sanctuary as new members of the congregation.

“During the service, I was constantly looking at the beautiful light,” he said afterward. “The beauty of the light came through the windows, the candles were glowing inside – it was magnificent.”

“It takes me back to 2,000 years ago,” added church member Esther Brunswick, who had performed during the worship on violin and mandolin alongside her guitar-playing husband Ron. “It makes it more real to me.”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.