Rev. Richard Wylie was a Napa Presbyterian Church pastor for more than 50 years, 1866-1923, and a larger than life personality. In addition to spear-heading the construction of the existing local Presbyterian edifice and overcoming great personal challenges, he was an accomplished horticulturist, inventory and musician. Richard Wylie is a legendary Napa County historical figure.
He was known for his flair for the dramatic. Typically, he would enter the sanctuary every Sunday with gusto, throw open the cape he wore over his vestments to reveal its red lining and then energetically launch into his sermon. But on one occasion that flair caused him some embarrassment. In 1911, following the conversion of the church’s gas fixtures into electric lights, he and the electrician, Earl Wilson, planned a dramatic debut for those lights. A Sunday evening service began in darkness. Richard then stood up and commanded, “Let there be light!” With that cue, Wilson turned on the lights only to blow a fuse casting the sanctuary back into darkness. Fortunately, Wilson quickly fixed the problem.
Richard Wylie was the surviving emissary of a ministering dynasty. He, his two brother, James, Jr. and John, as well as their father, James, Sr., were all ordained Presbyterian ministers. But, Richard was the only one to survive tuberculosis.
In 1866, before he arrived in Napa, 23-year-old John died from TB. Three years later it claimed 30-year-old James, Jr. Both of them died in their father’s arms. Grief-stricken and fearing for his only surviving son, James, Sr. wrote the following journal passage on Oct. 29, 1869. “Oh Lord, my God, bless this severe affliction to me — make me thy servant. Oh spare my only son and prepare him thoroughly for all thy righteous will.”
Seventy-two-year old James, Sr. would die on March 14, 1874 from tuberculosis. Before this, however, he witnessed the return of his healthy and strong son Richard in 1871. While Richard’s health improved at a familial estate in New York, his full recovery is attributed to his answering another call. Richard had felt compelled to traveled to his father’s birthplace, the Wylies’ ancestral land, of Scotland where he beat the disease.
Following his return to Napa and the pulpit, the father and son initiated the plans for a new Presbyterian Church building. The frail James, Sr. witnessed the laying of its cornerstone.
Before the new church was completed, a young woman, Harriet “Hattie” Gibbs, arrived in Napa to be the Young Ladies Seminary and Presbyterian Church’s music director. Richard and Hattie were married on Aug. 29, 1878. The local newspapers heralded the couple and their nuptials, but they also expressed their relief for 37-year-old Richard’s “stepping out of the shadowy path of advancing bachelorhood.”
Another happy life event occurred on Nov. 16, 1886 with the birth of the Wylie’s only child, Janet. Her musical gift revealed itself early and was encouraged by Richard and Hattie. Eventually, her talent would separate the family. With Richard’s blessings, in 1905, Janet and Hattie moved to Europe to advance her music career. While Hattie would return to Richard and Napa in 1919, before passing in 1922, father and daughter would never see each other again.
During his family’s absence, Richard continued his ministry as well as honed his avocations. With the aid of his good friend and renowned botanist Luther Burbank, Richard developed an exceptional green thumb and the “plum-cot”—a hybrid of the plum and apricot.
Richard also enjoyed challenging himself with mastering increasingly more difficult instrumental arrangements for the violin and cello. He apparently succeeded as he was lauded as being a gifted musician.
But Richard truly loved to tinker. In fact, Richard admitted if he had been allowed to follow his desire he would have been a machinist not a minister. His spray-nozzle and leaf sweeper for sidewalks and streets both received U.S. patents.
Although Richard found great pleasure with these hobbies, his greatest joy was ministering which ended when he passed away, at 82, on May 23, 1923. In his biography Mary McMillan Wigger wrote, “His sensitivity to those around him was remarkably keen. There seemed to be a kind of charismatic yet gentle majesty in the man.”
Legendary local figures such as Wylie will be the focus of an upcoming Napa Valley Adult Education course I will be teaching Tuesday evenings, Feb. 5-26. For more information about this course—“Once Upon the Vine: Legendary Napa Valley,” visit adulted.nvusd.org or call 707-253-3594.