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 Brief 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.
(Pictures: Junior Choir (long-time member HelenDole, on right, end of 3rd row), ca. 1946, Sunday School with Mrs.Hincks, ca. 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, 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.
The St. John’s Center was originally designed for congregational use. Each room was planned for a particular church activity, except for the ground floor recreation room designed for the rough activities of three Boy Scout troops.
As church membership declined and we realized the vastness of our building, in proportion to our needs, 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 need for childcare and created a childcare program with some government subsidy for low-income families. We saw 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 made our space available to Boy and Girl Scout troops and musical groups, including two youth orchestras. And we converted a large room initially planned for junior high activities to a dance room and allowed use of the room by a liturgical dance company, which occasionally participated in our worship services.
Church members were a part of these activities. Scout masters and families often came from the congregation. Many volunteers and participants in the senior center were church members. Many members of our first youth orchestra were children of the church and the orchestra sometimes performed with our church choirs.
Many years later, we opened our doors to 501(c)(3) groups and for public school, city and neighborhood meetings. Our infant care program is still a jewel in the community. Our Senior Center’s activity center, graced with help from Berkeley Adult School teachers, continues to be a community get-together for our community’s seniors.
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 vision of God’s will.
(Pictures: St. Johns Presbyterian Church, 2640 College Avenue, ca. 1964, Now the home of the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, St. John’s Presbyterian Church, 2727 College, ca. 1973)
The Centennial Notes 1907 to 2007
Perspectives on the past and present, and prayers for the future…
It’s March in Berkeley, 2007. St. John’s is preparing events to celebrate our 100th year. Meetings convene, and all the energy of our church is focused on festivities — and on fundraising, since a capital stewardship campaign is also underway. This is a busy place. Nearby on the Cal campus young and old have clambered into a grove of oaks to protest their removal for a new gym. Tomorrow, St. John’s members will join marchers flooding San Francisco streets to oppose a war of our country’s own making. Meanwhile, spring’s pinks and yellows insist on being noticed. This morning sparkles and it’s warm, suggesting that winter has left town early and won’t turn around and unpack. We pay attention to weather these days, now that the earth is teaching us in earnest the cost of human excess.One hundred years ago members of San Francisco’s St. John’s were recovering from an ecological disaster right under their feet. Having fled to the East Bay after the 1906 earthquake and the destruction of their church, they joined other worshipers from First Presbyterian, Berkeley, in organizing a new church of about 120 members. Despite upheavals of every sort and magnitude in the century ahead — devastating wars, the Great Depression, social outcries that roused the nation’s conscience in the name of justice for all, our stalwart forebears created a community which, by the grace of God, still stands. With thanks to God and to the vision of past and present “saints,” in June, whatever the weather, St. John’s will celebrate a centennial. We will rejoice in our hundred years of receiving Christ’s love in Word, Sacrament, and Holy Spirit, of sharing joys and concerns, of prayerfully participating in the renewal of God’s needy world.
IN THE BEGINNING
Drawn from Earlier Descriptions of Our Church Life— On June 16, 1907, our congregation was organized. The Rev. George Granville Eldredge of St. John’s in San Francisco was called to be pastor. On November 10, Dr. Eldredge accepted, bringing with him the name “St. John’s.” He served until his death from influenza in the fall of 1918. (Picture: St. John’s Sunday School Carriage, ca. 1910)
The Rev. E.S. Chapman served briefly as interim pastor until September, 1919, when the Rev. Francis W. Russell was issued a call. He served until June, 1923, and was considered a brilliant student of the Bible and an able administrator.
In January, 1924, the Rev. Stanley Armstrong Hunter began a ministry of thirty years at St. John’s, serving with unusual pastoral skill, “going in and out of our homes, sharing our joys and our sorrows, helping people in countless little ways.” Stories abound of the Hunters’ gracious presence and support.
Those early years were years of growth for St. John’s: growth in membership, faith, service, mission, and in the spirit and love of Christ. The earliest Christian church consisted of Jews in the first century who had known Jesus and heard his teachings. It gradually grew and spread from the Middle East to other parts of the world, though not without controversy and hardship among its supporters.