Tours of churches are standard fare on trips to Europe. Domestically, the activity is decidedly less common, though you can take bus tours of cathedrals in Chicago, Cleveland and even the so-called “painted churches of Texas.” And in fairness, Pasadena Heritage has done it a couple times. But when was the last time you were invited to tour the churches of a SMALL American town? Who would even think of such a thing?
Well, the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation did, and on the sunny afternoon of Saturday, May 4 the faithful, the curious, the historically and architecturally minded, participated in SPPF’s “Architecture of Faith,” the first-ever tour of historic South Pasadena churches.
“Although we confess to many years of focusing mostly on South Pasadena’s fine legacy of historic homes and neighborhoods, preserving the cultural legacy of our churches (and schools) is equally important,” SPPF President Steve Lawrence wrote in the 28-page, fact-filled brochure that accompanied the tour. The brochure features copies of the Foundation-commissioned water colors of each church by local artist Pete Morris.
The well-organized walking extravaganza featured six churches–Grace Brethren, Calvary Presbyterian, St. James Episcopal, South Pasadena Christian, Holy Family—all along Fremont Avenue—and Oneonta Congregational on Garfield Ave., where participants were also treated to a reception.
Pastors, volunteer docents, SPPF historians and other experts offered intimate, guided tours through South Pasadena’s sacred centers, providing a fascinating collection of facts and anecdotes that revealed the depth to which these neighborhood institutions have grown over more than a century of historical currents, social and architectural trends, local cooperation, seismology and faith.
Here is a small sample of the things participants learned:
–Individual women are honored in each of 13 clover-shaped stain glass windows displayed on the spectacular East Wall behind the altar at Oneonta Congressional Church, including Elizabeth Browning, Florence Nightingale and Jane Addams.
–St. James Episcopal has a photo of the wife of a former rector, Florence “Pancho” Barnes, a Hollywood stunt pilot who is posing with her aviation rival, Amelia Earhart.
–Back in the 1920s, the Pentecostals then using Grace Brethren’s building installed a 500-gallon baptistery which, likely while being filled, crashed through the floor of the chancel into the basement below, where it remains to this day.
–Sun Yat-sen, arguably the most famous Chinese person after Mao and Confucius, spent two weeks hiding out at the estate of a former South Pasadena Mayor, planted a tree and likely worshipped in the small Redwood Chapel that still stands on what is now the Oneonta Congregation’s campus.
–Along the north wall of Calvary Presbyterian’s sanctuary, the fourth window from the front contains a Bible reference that does not exist. There’s also a puzzling use of symbols in a window on the same wall which the church considers “either a theological mismatch or a mistake.” The church’s attitude is “to enjoy these imperfections.”
–Exactly one of the dozens of turned wooden balusters that make up the balcony railing of the choir loft at Holy Family, was installed upside down.
A number of the churches were organized before the turn of the 20th century, well before they had their own buildings. Over the years, dozens of congregations moved in and out of the structures, while a number serve multiple congregations in Spanish and Mandarin and/or provide “nesting” to otherwise homeless churches. Oneonta alone has six “tenant churches” that hold worship services on its campus.
Grace Brethren claims its building at Fremont and El Centro is the city’s oldest actual church structure, as it was built in 1887 by Pasadena Presbyterian and hauled in 1907 by horse and wagon to South Pasadena where it was remodeled. St. James also has a claim, its structure on Fremont and Monterey having broken ground in 1905, though over a half dozen additions were made at the site over the following decades.
Grace and St. James are the only South Pasadena churches on the city’s list of 50-plus cultural heritage landmarks.
The churches styles encompass California Mission Revival, English Gothic, Roman Revival, Spanish Baroque and Mid-Century Modern. They were created by an impressive of list of architects including:
–Norman Foote Marsh (Grace), a South Pasadena resident who designed the city of Venice, CA and 27 other churches in L.A. and San Diego, as well as South Pasadena’s War Memorial Building, public library and city hall.
–George M. Lindsey (Calvary), who supervised construction of a number of schools and facilities for the LA Board of Education;
–Bertram Goodhue (St. James), a prolific church architect whose projects also include designing the L. A. Central Library.
–John Galbraith (S. Pasadena Christian), who designed a number of commercial and institutional structures but was best known for residential designs of homes in L. A., Pasadena, South Pasadena, Santa Barbara and Dana Point.
–Emmett G Martin (Holy Family), recognized for his designs of L.A.-area Catholic churches
–Herbert J. Powell, whose design for Oneonta Church was guided by Senior Minister Dr. Henry David Gray, who in turn carried forth the ideas of congregants. Powell’s work on Oneonta was named “most outstanding church chancel” of 1950 by the National Association of Church Architects and was featured in both Life Magazine and Popular Science.
All of the churches except Holy Family are blessed with a variety of striking stained glass from the Judson Studios of Highland Park, which has been practicing its trade for over a century and provides windows to churches and other structures around the world.
Earthquakes have played a significant role in the city’s sacred history. The 1971 quake forced Calvary Presbyterian to replace its tall tower with a shorter one, while the 1987 tumbler nearly pulled the roof apart, requiring the horizontal placement of steel trusses below the chapel ceiling. St James’ tower was also damaged in the 1987 quake, but leaders used the remodeling opportunity to narrow the chapel’s pillars, whose width obstructed the site lines from many a pew.
Tour participants also learned about the church organs. Each has at least one except South Pasadena Christian, though it hopes to get one. Grace Brethren wasn’t able to complete installation of its organ, but its pipes still inspire from their perch in the sanctuary. And for reasons unknown, Calvary Presbyterian’s Reuter organ pipes were screened from view, though the congregation is considering whether to uncover them once again.
Some of the pipes at Oneonta are visible while others are behind redwood panels. Oneonta also has an antiphonal organ, used to ”answer” the main instrument. St. James’ three-manual instrument—really two organs—is in an arch on the Epistle (right) side of the church but played from a Gospel recess on the left. Holy Family has two, one in the choir loft and one in a transept.
The churches also serve their mission through education and outreach. Tour participants got to see the facilities used for these. All the churches have some sort of Sunday or pre-school program, though Calvary has the largest with eight classrooms and 134 students. Holy Family has a school serving K-8, while St. James’ parish day school includes an accredited nursery, kindergarten and pre-K.
Between them, the six churches operate over three dozen separate community support programs such as food banks; providing ministry support as far as Nepal; supplying space for women’s groups, 12-step programs, Kiwanis and Rotarians; clean water projects in Peru; and weekly “sip and stitch” gatherings where folks knit and sew blankets for shelters and hospitals. Homeless and convalescent teams offer weekly Bible discussions and services at various locales; space is provided for a charter school that offers free classes for formerly incarcerated adults; and still other programs support the Salvation Army, Braille Institute and many other groups.
After the tour ended, participants were left to reflect on the unique opportunity they’d had for such a close an extensive look at these vital parts of the South Pasadena community.