February 9: James Melville Gilliss (1865)

Something just seems right about a church that is named for an event featuring wise men following a star to have an astronomer as a founding member. From the earliest days of his naval career, James Melville Gilliss was involved with astronomical research. He was made officer-in-charge of the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments. Gilliss’s most lasting achievement, however, was in almost single-handedly building the institution that became the U.S. Naval Observatory, the first national observatory in the United States. In part because of internal navy politics, Matthew F. Maury was named the first superintendent. At the outset of the Civil War, Maury joined the southern cause, and in April 1861 Gilliss was appointed the new superintendent of the Naval Observatory. Today the library at the observatory bears his name.


James M. Gillis and his wife, Rebecca, were a part of Epiphany from the beginning. They were present at the laying of the cornerstone. Their youngest daughter, Fannie, was the first child baptized in the new church. Their youngest son, George, was buried from Epiphany at age 5. The marriage of their oldest son, James, to Rebecca Stellwagen brought together two early Epiphany families. Gilliss served on Epiphany’s vestry and was chairman of the building committee for the 1857 renovation, the first major update to the church. When Gilliss passed away on February 9, 1865, Epiphany’s vestry began their tribute of respect, “The vestry of the Church of the Epiphany have heard with deep sorrow the announcement of the death of Capt. J.M. Gilliss, one of its most acceptable and useful members…”

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