Sandra Day O’Connor’s ancestor founded the first Episcopal church in Wichita, Kansas

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Dec 5, 2023

Four months after it was founded by John Hilton, great-grandfather of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Wichita, Kansas, built its first building, made of logs, in March 1870. Photo: St. John’s

[Episcopal News Service] Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who died on Dec. 1, was a lifelong Episcopalian. But her family’s roots in The Episcopal Church stretch back more than 150 years, to the days of pioneers on the Kansas prairie. Her great-grandfather, John Hilton, an Anglican layman who had arrived in Wichita, Kansas, from England, was the founder of the city’s first Episcopal church, St. John’s, in December 1869.

John Hilton, an Anglican layman from England, founded St. John’s Episcopal Church in Wichita, Kansas, with its first service in December 1869. Photo: Diocese of Kansas

The church website says Hilton undertook the founding through an appointment from the Diocese of Kansas’ first bishop, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Vail.

The first gathering was a service of Evening Prayer in the Munger house, the first home built in the city that still stands today. The little St. John’s congregation built its first building, a small log structure, a few months later, in March 1870.

O’Connor honored her Kansas Episcopal roots when she visited St. John’s in 1988 for a service marking the church’s 120th  anniversary. A plaque commemorating her visit now hangs in the church.

In an interview with KAKE-TV, St. John’s member Michael McFerren, who was not at that service, said church members have said she was very glad to be able to attend and to be in touch with her Kansas roots.

A plaque commemorates the visit of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to St. John’s, Wichita, Kansas, on its 120th anniversary. Photo: KAKE-TV video screenshot

Today, St. John’s stands in downtown Wichita in a building built in 1893, with a special ministry of outreach to the community.

O’Connor was born on March 26, 1930, to cattle ranchers in El Paso, Texas. She graduated from high school at age of 16 and enrolled at Stanford University. She went on to law school and was one of only five women in her incoming class at Stanford Law School. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor, then 51 years old, to the Supreme Court, fulfilling a campaign promise to appoint the first female justice. She served on the court until 2006.

O’Connor attended Sunday worship services at Washington National Cathedral during her tenure as a justice, where she also was a lector. She served eight years on the Cathedral Chapter, the congregation’s governing body. In 1982 she was part of a a panel discussion on women’s issues during General Convention, and she participated in a 1992 teleconference sponsored by Washington National Cathedral on community violence. She also spoke at a variety of conferences hosted by Episcopal entities during her tenure.

In 2009 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.