Longtime St. Paul’s minister remembered for many community-wide contributions
When Bishop Clarence Haydon assigned his new young preacher Marvin Bowers to Healdsburg’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in 1972 he ordered him to first shave his beard to improve his chances of winning the acceptance of his new congregation during times of national and local controversy and unrest. It didn’t work that well, at first.
“We had a couple of rocky years,” Bowers admitted recently. “Those were days with Vietnam War protests and the community was divided about the construction of the Warm Springs Dam.” Things must have eventually worked out because Bowers stayed in the St. Paul’s pulpit for another 36 years before retiring in 2008. As he and his wife Bonnie are now moving south to Los Angeles to be near a set of grandchildren, the now-bald and still beardless Bowers is being sent off with beloved thoughts, community-wide tributes, rekindled memories, COVID-restricted hugs and collective tears.
Bowers came here and found a “broken” Healdsburg community that needed him to preach the Gospel and spread the word of God. That’s how he always has seen his chosen profession and path in life.
“Most people think all people are basically good, but I say there is something broken in all of us that we can’t fix by ourselves. There are no tricks to my trade. The word of God is about being forgiven, repentance and faith. It’s the salvation of souls. We can’t do that just by ourselves,” he said, and when asked to describe how he saw his “job” and service to the Healdsburg community, he also answered. “I just give people assurance.”
Bowers’ words and works helped direct and define the path and community character of the Healdsburg community for almost five decades by as much as any other local elected official, civic leader or respected elder. He did this as a man of the cloth who preached from the Book of Common Prayer and he did it as a volunteer fireman, father and husband, song leader, food pantry founder, friend of the local under-represented Latino community, family counselor, co-conspirator with other local clergy and even as a newspaper columnist for this newspaper.
Even before he finished packing up his household belongings and following a big moving van down Highway 101, he already was being missed. On a last visit to St. Paul’s, a piano was donated to the church and dedicated in his and Bonnie’s name. St. Paul’s current reverend, Sally Hanes Hubbell, dusted off the church’s historic registry of services, funerals, christenings and memorials for Bowers to run his fingers across the hundreds of names he had entered there over the many years. His eyes moistened from behind his face mask.
On All Saints Day, Nov. 1, Bowers was asked to give The Holy Eucharist in an outdoor ceremony at Healdsburg’s Barndiva. He read from the text including the Word of God and also the Holy Communion. But he also talked about the coronavirus pandemic and the pending election two days later. “I said we live in days of much doubt and we won’t know what will come but we know He will be with us and we must be like Him.”
About the election, Bowers reminded his audience that each are part of a family and are also citizens and voters. “We must be willing for the good to get better and we do this through love,” he recited from his memory. “Love must become a civic virtue. We must think how we act and how we vote. Otherwise we will continue to live in a broken world.”
When told of how significant and meaningful his impact has been to the all of the Healdsburg community by one longtime friend, he was silent and did not disagree. Asked what he might like to say to his accepted community, he said, “Thank you to everyone for all you have done for me.”
Although he followed a very orthodox approach to his Episcopalian ministry, Bowers could easily be mistaken for a community activist when not leading his daily 8 a.m. morning and 5 p.m. evening prayers.
During his early rocky years, he wandered across Matheson Street one day to St. John’s Catholic Church and introduced himself to Father John “Jack” O’Hair, thus beginning a decades-long partnership and friendship.
“I was feeling a little pressure from the surrounding controversies and needed to talk,” remembered Bowers. “He (Jack) said later that I asked him, ‘will you be my friend?’ and I guess that’s what I needed.”
The two men were soon joined by Father Bill Hayes of the Healdsburg Federated Church and they immediately started to make things happen all over town.
The three of them were active leaders in the beginnings of what today is the Alliance Medical Center. They combined their ministries to help form the North County Community Services, now the homeless outreach program called Reach For Home. With other churches they formed the Healdsburg Shared Ministries and food pantry still operating today and Bowers served on the Healdsburg Library Advisory Board for 30 years. He was also the chaplain for the Healdsburg Fire Department.
Born in Napa to a mechanically inclined father and stay-at-home mother, Bowers knew early on he wanted to pursue divinity school. He studied English at University of California at Santa Barbara while volunteering at a small Episcopal church near the campus. When his housing arrangement changed, he answered a ‘help wanted’ ad at the local fire department, which provided him housing, and his lifelong volunteer fireman career was begun. He graduated from seminary school in New York City and, after being ordained, was assigned by the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California to a small church in Calistoga before being reassigned to Healdsburg just a few years later.
“Bonne and I have always felt very fortunate to have raised our family in Healdsburg and have so many friends and great experiences at St. Paul’s,” Bowers said. Remarking on the growth and other changes in Healdsburg through the years, he said, “I’ve never minded that we’ve become a wine country destination. I think that course was kind of set for us many years ago, but we’ve never forgotten our real people and families.” He also praised the recent work of Corazón Healdsburg and others for greatly improving the support and acceptance of Latino community members.
In his early years here, Bowers had started an outreach to some of the most poor farmworker families. After a visit to deliver donated food, accompanied by Bishop John Thompson, the bishop was so impressed that he offered to send the Bowers to Mexico for Spanish immersion language lessons. Upon his return, Bowers started Spanish-language services at St. Paul’s. “We started with just a few people, but I felt it was a great thing and kept going,” he said.
Bowers worked closely with dozens of parishioners and Vestry members where he was often the only paid church employee.
“I was always amazed how we raised five children, lived in a church-owned home and paycheck-to-paycheck without much other money. It was all voluntary,” he said about his financial support. “I was always very impressed by these people.” He confessed to a love for preaching and following the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. “You can love to preach, but do the people you preach to love you?” he asked rhetorically. At St. Paul’s and in Healdsburg, the man who wore his “turned around white collar” every day and even on emergency fire calls, said, “I felt loved and I really came to love this community.” Even in those early rocky days, Bowers said he had some great experiences of reconciliation.
But he did suffer times of doubt or feelings of failure. “I thought I had lost my faith (and might have to quit) when our 5-year-old grandson died of cancer. I was officiating at a funeral and found myself not believing the words I was delivering,” he confessed. Father O’Hair from St. John’s snapped him out of it and saved a good minister for Healdsburg. “He told me not to make it about myself and to go sit at my grandson’s grave and be sad and grieve as Jesus would have us do.”
Bowers was a member of a group of men who called themselves The Paper Group. Members would take turns writing and delivering a paper on a chosen topic. One time he gave himself the assignment to answer, “Does God exist?” Instead of reading from the five ways God exists by St. Thomas Aquinas, Bowers instead relied on an indelible memory from his childhood. “I remember once seeing and hearing my father in his bedroom, kneeling down and talking out loud. I believed my father to be a very intelligent person so I knew he wouldn’t be talking to someone who wasn’t there.” None of the Paper Group members doubted him.
After retiring in 2008, Bowers and Bonnie began annual ministry trips to Arequipa, Peru through their membership in the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders (SAM.) Bowers mentored young preachers and exchanged cultures between the hemispheres. Now at age 76, Bowers does not think he will make any more visits to Peru while he settles into his new community in northeast Los Angeles near Pasadena. But he said he will definitely visit the local fire department and let them know he’s in town. He also looks forward to singing at the local Episcopal church.