In 1907 in the spirit of God’s inclusive love, we came together to worship, to rejoice and to encourage gratitude and wonder in both our congregation and the community…
A History of St. John’s Presbyterian Church
Following the devastating earthquake and fire that destroyed much of San Francisco in April of 1906, many families moved to the East Bay after losing their homes in the tragic event. Some of these new residents joined about 100 people from the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley to consider the formation of a new congregation.
On May 15, 1907, these people petitioned Presbytery to establish a new church in Berkeley, and, on June 16, 1907, this church was officially organized by the Presbytery. Many of the first members of this new church who had come from San Francisco brought with them a cherished memory of the St. John’s Presbyterian Church there along with a hope that its pastor, Dr. George G. Eldridge, might be influenced to accept the call to be the first pastor of our new church in Berkeley. On November 10, 1907, Dr. Eldridge did indeed accept a call to be our pastor and brought with him one sentimental stipulation: that the new church be called St. John’s. (Picture: 1907 Fellowship Hall Groundbreaking)
Services were held temporarily in Stiles Hall (the University YMCA) until all the structures needed to serve the church could be built. The final stage of construction included the sanctuary and was completed in 1910. The buildings were designed by architect, Julia Morgan, who created an architectural icon which has since been designated as a State Historical Landmark and now serves as the Julia Morgan Theater.
After eleven years of faithful service, on October 9, 1918 Dr. Eldridge became a fatal victim of the great influenza epidemic that began sweeping across our country. Although the church remained in heartbroken bewilderment, a retired minister in his eighties, Rev. E. S. Chapman, comforted and led the perplexed congregation through the coming months and on September 10, 1919, Dr. Francis W. Russell was called to be our pastor.
In 1923, Dr. Russell left St. John’s to become the Executive Director of the Mr. Herman Association and in January, 1924, Dr. Stanley Armstrong Hunter from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania started his ministry with us. For the next thirty years, Dr. Hunter played a major role in framing the history and future direction of St. John’s, retiring in January, 1954.
In 1955 the church bought the present property on College and Forest and ten years later occupied the fellowship hall and adjoining classrooms while maintaining our various ministries on “two campuses.”
Dr. Hunter’s ministry was followed by the leadership of Dr. James Comfort Smith, (1954-1970) by Dr. Robert A. McKenzie, (1970-1983) and by Dr. Thomas D. McKnight (1984-2001). Pastor Max Lynn arrived in 2002.
In 1968, a generous bequest from Dr. Howard Campbell made it possible to complete the building of a new sanctuary and all the necessary accessory areas, each with its own purpose, now known as the St. John’s Center. In 1974 we vacated the “old church” and temporarily held services in the Fellowship Hall until the sanctuary was finished one year later. In late 1978 the final mortgage payment had been made on the entire property and a grand service of burning the mortgage was held.
As church membership changed and we realized the vastness of our building, we decided to make the building available as a community center. A center endowment fund provided some funds for programs. The building was new and required little maintenance. We saw the need for childcare and created a childcare program with some government subsidy for low-income families. We saw the need for senior activities and created a senior center in collaboration with the Berkeley Public Schools. The center director was paid with public school adult education funds.
We also made our space available to Boy and Girl Scout troops and musical groups, including two youth orchestras. Many years later, we opened our doors to 501(c)(3) groups and for public school, city and neighborhood meetings. Both church members and community member enjoyed these activities, with groups occasionally participating in our worship services, a tradition that continues to this day.
Today St. John’s is still a place of worship and a gathering spot for the community. Strongly rooted in Christ’s love and with a deep commitment to social justice we welcome all who come thorough our doors. As a church, we are grateful for the gifts that God has provided us through the years, especially through the Spirit within people that have been called to serve us, teach us, love us, and bring us a vision of God’s will. We look forward to seeing what God has planed for us next!