St. Luke’s in Deming — The House of Cards and the Unlone Stranger

St. Luke’s Church
St. Luke's Church 

“House of cards” has a whole ‘nother meaning when it comes to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Deming , New Mexico. According to legend, in 1892, the original structure of this frontier church was financed by $40,000 of winnings from a poker game with Doc Holliday in attendance and hosted by the notorious Lottie Deno. And, for a fact, Lottie Deno made one of the altar cloths used by St. Luke’s.

The church’s design was an architectural triumph of sorts and one popularly celebrated in its day - train station modern. The land for the church was donated by the old Santa Fe Railroad in 1890. The plans for the original structure were those of a train depot. Compare it with the local chamber of commerce and visitor center which occupies an old train station and you can see the resemblance.

The church’s somewhat dark past is matched by its dark interior - beautifully so. The simple wood interior provides an appropriately spiritual backdrop for devotion and the weekly Eucharistic service. The stained glass windows, crosses, statuary, and altar further please the aesthetic senses and the soul. The simple and sophisticated, sensual and spiritual, are wonderfully balanced.

It was on Christmas Day in 1892 when St. Lukes’ bell first rang out. It is believed to be the first church bell in New Mexico, and it has beckoned worshipers for a hundred years. The church was long a mission church, became a parish, and is now a mission church again.

The church’s new vicar, Father Tommy Means, has had a spiritual journey as rich and colorful as that of St. Luke’s itself, one in which St. Luke’s played a prominent role. Under his leadership the church may yet again become a parish.

Father Tommy Means
Father Tommy Means  

It is unusual for a priest to lead a church of which he has long been a member. However, both St. Luke’s and Tommy Means are unusual in extraordinary ways.

St. Luke’s survived a fire in 1992 and, with the help of the community, was rebuilt better than new. Perhaps this demonstration of communal support was one source of Father Tommy’s philosophy. Certainly the church’s perseverance is reflected in his own life.

He considered entering the ministry as a young man but fell away. Some years later he again responded to an even clearer calling. The words of Jonah, Chapter 3, verses 1 and 2 spoke to him: “And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching I bid thee.”

With the aid of St. Luke’s Father Martin, he petitioned the bishop, gave it his best shot - and was rejected. He says he was relieved. He fulfilled what he saw as his responsibilities to his calling. The pressure was off.

He remained active in St. Luke’s, becoming a lay reader and senior warden. He also assisted Marian Canterbury - one of the first female Episcopal priests who was sponsored, in part, by St. Luke’s - on her travels from Socorro to Columbus, New Mexico. She ministered to a group of mission churches and he acted as lay reader in what was known as the Jornada de Fe.

Encouraged by Marian, some ten years after his first attempt, he was ordained a priest under a special program that limited his service and compensation. In the resulting itinerant ministry, he served the small Episcopal Church at Hatch, New Mexico, weekly. Every other week he served the church in Truth or Consequences as well, alternating with Father Ed Ostertag of Hillsboro.

The church in Hatch became unsustainable, but his ministry in T or C continued. That congregation was a dozen in 1989 when Father Tommy started there. When Father Tommy, having been subsequently granted fully compensated and unrestricted service in the church, left to be St. Luke’s vicar, more than one hundred attended his final service.

Father Tommy is unusual also in that he, though well studied, is not college educated nor a seminary graduate. He is a product of the Preacher Lewis School of Ministry in Mesilla Park , a defunct school founded by and named for Preacher Lewis who rode by train establishing churches and missions and baptizing people in frontier times. Among his teachers were Bruce and Virginia Brown who also were pastors for the New Mexico State University Chapel.

His message is simple. He preaches giving God a chance. For him that chance came through attending church, celebrating Holy Communion, and engaging in the supportive communion of congregants. If given a chance, God will find you, wherever you may be, he affirms.

“Christianity is not a religion for the Lone Ranger,” Tommy Means says. Community and communion go together for Father Tommy and come together at St. Luke’s.

A family man, Tommy Means is far from the Lone Ranger. He and wife, Barbara, have three daughters and two sons. Two daughters - Mary and Donna - two sons - Obie and Bent - and their families live in Deming. Daughter Keeley and her family lives in Elrida, Arizona. Tommy and Barbara have 11 grandkids.

Tommy was born in West Virginia. His father died in the coal mines there. His mother brought him to Arizona, seeking relief from his asthma - and found it. It was a triumph of faith and determination and a positive influence on Tommy Means.

Tommy worked a variety of jobs and very briefly attended Arizona State University before beginning a long career with El Paso Natural Gas, from which he retired several years ago. Wife Barbara, a Buckeye, Arizona, girl, has her family rooted in Deming. That and the opportunities presented by El Paso Natural Gas led Tommy Means to Deming.

A life-long laboring man, he often worked in and with crews. Perhaps that is still another source of his simple message and emphasis on community. Even today, as a partner in a pest control business with a son and son-in-law, labor is his familiar friend.

Father Tommy’s friendly face can be seen each week and friendly voice heard saying, with joy and humility, “Welcome to St. Luke’s.” He’ll administer Holy Communion, talk about community, and tell a few stories from his continuing journey of work and growth. And, if you listen closely, perhaps you can hear a story or two directly from the beautiful old walls of St. Luke’s itself.