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Harry P. Stagg, dead at 101, was key N.M. Baptist, Glorieta figure

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (BP)–For 101 years, Harry P. Stagg demonstrated an amazing ability to reach goals he set for himself. He set a goal of reaching 100, which he met on Oct. 1, 1998. And he told people how much he was looking forward to having lived in three centuries — the 19th, 20th and 21st — and he met that goal on Jan. 1.

The executive director emeritus of the Baptist Convention of New Mexico died peacefully at his home in Albuquerque on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 6.

“I stand in amazement at what he accomplished in the 30 years he served as executive secretary-treasurer,” said Stagg’s most recent successor, Claude Cone.

Cone specifically cited the establishment of the state convention’s two camps, Inlow Baptist Camp and Conference Center and Sivells Baptist Conference and Retreat Center; the establishment of Baptist Student Union ministries on the state’s college campuses and construction of five BSU buildings; construction of the Baptist Building in Albuquerque; establishment of the New Mexico Baptist Foundation; establishment and development of the New Mexico Baptist Children’s Home; and the vital role Stagg played in convincing the Southern Baptist Convention to locate its western conference center in northern New Mexico.

Stagg led New Mexico Baptists from 1938-68. At the time of his retirement, he had served longer than any other state Baptist executive in the history of the SBC.

According to New Mexico Baptist historian Dan Carnett, New Mexico Baptists experienced explosive growth during Stagg’s years at the state convention’s helm. In 1940, Carnett said, there were 171 Baptist churches in New Mexico. By 1950, that number had grown to 249, and another 87 new churches were started in the decade of the ’50s. The ratio of Baptists to the general population in the state dropped from 1/27 in 1939 to 1/12 in 1960.

“Stagg’s achievements rank him as the most important Southern Baptist in New Mexico history,” said Carnett in the Sept. 26, 1998, issue of the Baptist New Mexican newsjournal.

“Blessed with an ability to communicate his vision and inspire others to action, [Stagg’s] leadership contributed to results far in excess of the energies and resources that a state organization its size would normally produce,” Carnett said. “In church growth and denominational expansion, as well as in social and civic attainment, Stagg led New Mexico Baptists in transforming the religious and cultural life of their state.”

During Stagg’s 100th birthday party at Glorieta, a LifeWay Conference Center, in 1998, Stagg was lauded as a war hero, civic leader and state convention executive. The obvious consensus was that Stagg’s greatest accomplishment was his role in the establishment of Glorieta.

In 1948, the SBC’s only “assembly” was at Ridgecrest, N.C. A western assembly was needed to accommodate Baptists who were spreading westward and to serve as a catalyst for further westward expansion. Stagg led the state convention to purchase land and worked tirelessly to convince the SBC that it was the best site for the assembly.

But there was a problem.

In September 1948, the western assembly committee voted to locate the assembly in Harrison, Ark. SBC messengers would consider the recommendation the following May during their annual meeting in Oklahoma City, and no convention had ever turned down the report of a special committee in the SBC’s history.

Undaunted, two members of the committee brought a minority report to the floor of the convention. Vaughan Rock, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Phoenix, Ariz., and the brother of Stagg’s wife, Alma, and Philip McGahey, pastor of First Baptist Church, Albuquerque, where the Staggs were members, persuaded the convention to vote overwhelmingly to locate the assembly in New Mexico.

Glorieta opened its doors three years later.

“We thank the Lord for Harry’s leadership,” Larry Haslam, Glorieta’s director, told the Baptist New Mexican Feb. 7. Calling Stagg “the force” behind the conference center’s existence, Haslam noted the impact Glorieta has made in the lives of more than 50,000 guests who attend each year.

During Stagg’s 100th birthday luncheon, Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee and Stagg’s pastor at First Baptist Church, Albuquerque, from 1974-79, called Stagg “a giant, not only among New Mexico Baptists, but among Southern Baptists,” and noted that “his contribution to Southern Baptist life had been uniquely distinguished.”

Who would have thought in 1925 that young Harry P. Stagg would make such an impact during the 20th century.

The son of a Louisiana preacher, he desired to be a medical missionary. Injuries sustained during World War I, however, prevented him from achieving that dream. He was able to earn a degree in missionary training from the Baptist Bible Institute (now New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary), but medical studies proved impossible. His doctor prescribed complete rest with no heavy responsibilities.

In March 1925, a friend who was making a cross-country journey insisted that Stagg join him. Reasoning that he could either die at home or see if the new surroundings might help, he accepted. Upon arrival in New Mexico, however, Stagg almost died of ptomaine poisoning outside of Clovis. Traveling on to Albuquerque, he met C.W. Stumph, the BCNM’s executive secretary, who prevailed upon Stagg to preach temporarily at the Baptist church in Gallup, which was without a pastor. After hearing him speak, the congregation asked him to stay. Given Stagg’s severe health problem, this appeared an impossibility, but he did agree to stay two months to give the church an opportunity to find someone else. The two months extended to 13 years.

In 1937, the BCNM nominating committee asked Stagg to assume leadership of the financially strapped state convention. After initially rejecting the request, Stagg experienced what he described as a “deep darkness of soul.” Later, he would comment that he felt God was saying to him, “You don’t laugh at me when I have a job for you.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Stagg’s story was told by Bonnie O’Brien, wife of former BCNM Executive Director Chester O’Brien, in a book titled, “Harry P. Stagg, Christian Statesman,” published by Broadman Press, Nashville, Tenn., in 1976.

During World War I, Stagg was a Purple Heart and Silver Star recipient. Last year the government of France presented the Legion of Honor award to Stagg in commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the end of World War I. The highest honor given by the French government was presented to men who served honorably and were wounded in action on French soil during “the war to end all wars.”

At the time of his death, Stagg was the oldest former district governor of Rotary International in the world.

Stagg’s wife, Alma, died last June at the age of 96, after 73 years of marriage.

Stagg’s father, W.L. Stagg, preached the gospel until he was 95, and Stagg’s grandfather, Adolph Stagg, was Southern Baptists’ first missionary to French-speaking people in Louisiana.

Survivors include one brother, Basil, of Ball, La.; daughters Carolyn Tope and Marcia Cantrell of Albuquerque; seven grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

Funeral services are scheduled for Friday, Feb. 11, at 1 p.m. at First Baptist Church, Albuquerque.

Visitation is scheduled for Feb. 10 from 4-7 p.m. at French Mortuary, 1111 University Blvd. NE, Albuquerque. The casket is also to be open at the church one hour before the service.

The family requests that memorial contributions be made to Noon Day Ministries, P.O. Box 25451, Albuquerque, NM 87187.

    About the Author

  • John Loudat