Illustrated Guide to the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco (2000)
Digitally reproduced (2021)
Rededication Weekend November 20 – 21, 1999
Letter to Members and Friends
on the Occasion of the Rededication of St. John’s
Today we pause to give thanks for all that has led to the Rededication of our church. It is a time for looking back. Yet more importantly, it is a time for looking ahead.
At Annual Parish Meetings over the past several years, we have been reminded of our limits. We know that we are not a large congregation, that we don’t have a lot of money, and that we are located in an area that my fellow Minnesotans would describe as “different.” We have recognized this reality and we have not made any pretensions about being or becoming other than what we are or where we are.
Yet, neither have we let ourselves be diminished unnecessarily by what we don’t have. Instead, we let our imaginations be captured by a limitless Spirit and we have found joy in discovering and pursuing all that is possible.
That is how we managed to arrive at this day and place. We let go of the fear of not surviving and very conscientiously set about the ministry of being good news to each other. We set about the business of being good news to our neighbors too and telling good news to those who hadn’t heard any from a church for a while.
To use a tainted but fundamentally good word, we became “evangelists” ourselves. We became the Church not only of St. John the Evangelist but also of Gene and Otis the Evangelists, of Michael and Dennis the Evangelists, Alison and Elinor the Evangelists, and others too numerous to mention. And just like the original four, we realized that the most crucial resource for life-changing ministry was not what could be grasped externally but what would emanate from within each and every one of us. We did not let our inquiring minds foster fear. We were determined to live instead by faith. We did not let our open hearts luxuriate in self-indulgence but rather self-giving love.
So today, not just as the Rector of this parish but as one member among many in this community who can testify to its life-giving, life directing power, I say “thanks” to God for all those who have dared to dream big and boldly. The truth is that God has been very good to us; it shows in virtually every aspect of our common life as well as the stories of individuals who comprise it. And I say “Yes!” to all those whose dreams have just begun to unfold for, at St. John’s, the best is yet to be.
The Rev. David L Norgard
21 November, 1999
THANK YOUS FROM ANDREW COOPER
Several very talented and patient individuals worked with me to make this publication possible. Alison Ross helped scan pictures right up until she gave birth (thank you Elinor for respecting our deadline requirements!). Kurt Iversen deserves thanks for safeguarding historic photos and collecting many of the old stories about St. John’s. Don Stover worked on the photo archives.
Ann Avery, a friend in Colorado, edited the history. Julie Smith did an excellent job proofreading the final copy. Laura Murphy created the beautiful cover graphics, laid out the interior, and provided all sorts of technical expertise. And the Rev. John Rawlinson helped me navigate the diocesan archives at Grace. The parish is grateful to all of you for your commitment to seeing this project through to completion.
INDIVIDUAL PORTRAITS (First Name Alphabetical) [digital version omits contact information]
NO PHOTOGRAPHS AVAILABLE
GROUP PORTRAITS (No Particular Order)
by Andrew Cooper, Communications Director
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that history is dull or that research is boring. One night, back in the spring, I was alone in the church looking for photographs and old documents to enliven this revised history of the parish. While rummaging aronnd among boxes and cobwebs in the basement I came across a folder dated 1939-40. In it was a stamped envelope with faded typeface, still sealed after sixty years. What on earth could be in it, I wondered?
After carefully opening the envelope, I was startled to find myself reading a hand written account of bitter disagreements between the vestry and the lay reader at the time, AG.Clarke. Almost six decades later, the envelope and its contents still packed a punch. It left me with more of an understanding of the pressures and tensions involved in running a poor inner city parish during the Great Depression than any official account ever could. It is a colorful contribution to a parish with a rich and tumultuous history.
My main goal here has been to write a people’s history of St. John’s that reflected the astonishingly colorful and diverse voices which poured forth &om the parish archives. You will see I have worked from letters, financial reports, and personal memoirs to create a history that is more than a mere chronology. The photographs in particular are treasures. St. John’s is one of the few churches in San Francisco to have a collection of photographs that predates the 1906 earthquake.
As I poured over the archival materials, I couldn’t help but be moved by the human struggles and sacrifices that have enabled this parish to keep going through the good times and the bad. It struck me that the history of St. John’s is really about the history of an extended family of individuals, people like Thomas Brotherton, Emily Wilson, Jim Brown, Edward Spalding, and James Rolph. The greatest tribute we can make to those who came before us, and to those who will come after us, is to cherish our community history and pass on our stories. That way, the red doors on Julian Avenue will never close.
We will ensure that everyone, from devout believers to curious skeptics, from familiar faces to strangers passing through, will have a place to come in, sit down and spend time with their God, among friends.
ST. JOHN’S lN THE CITY
THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
IN SAN FRANCISCO 1857-2000
1857 -James Buchanan inaugurated as fifteenth. U.S. president-
The Atlantic Monthly begins publication -U.S. Supreme Court upholds slave owners’ righis in the ‘Dred Scott’ decision, driving the country
closer to civil war -Big financial losses in the markets trigger a painful year-long economic downturn.
When lay reader John Cltittendon, principal of San Francisco College, rose to deliver the first reading at St. John’s on November 22, 1857, the outlook for the fledgling parish was “scant and unpromising.”1
That first winter was grim. Parishioners met in a building rented from the Methodist Society and funds were so low that the landlord bolted the doors one Sunday in February 1858 for non-payment of rent. Mrs. William Greene, wife of the senior warden, broke in through an unlatched window and saved the Sunday School children standing drenched outside in the rain.2
The choir braved rainstorms and a jolting 25 cent coach ride over a planked road to reach the sodden bogs of the Mission Dolores district. Theo Smith, the first organist and choir director, later recalled “the vigorous appetites it developed for the ample lunches always ready for them either at the residence of Mr. Henry Williams or Mrs. Greene.”3
The Mission district was three miles and a world away from the dusty, crowded streets of San Francisco. Founded in 1776 and christened with its present name in 1847, San Francisco’s proximity to the Sutter’s Creek gold strike of 1849 turned it into America’s premier city of sin. But out on the lonely moors of the Mission, potted with market gardens, cow pastures, and a few cottages, sins of the flesh were scarce and physical discomfort a constant.
By 1859 St. John’s numbered 40 active members. A year later there were 102 Sunday School pupils with 14 teachers. In 1861 the parish felt confident enough to hire a full time rector, the Rev. Thomas Brotherton, at the princely sum of $50 a month.4 Plans were made to build a permanent home. Mrs. Greene’s ladies’ committee, the Parish Aid Society, raised $1,500 to purchase an adjoining plot of land on the northeast corner of 15th and Valencia Streets.5
Construction was budgeted at $4,750 and building started in early 1862.Trouble brewed when the building contractor walked off the job one month shy of the November deadline complaining of a $1,000 shortfall in expenses. It was “a most critical time.”6 The crisis was averted when Junior Warden John Williams stepped in and loaned the parish $892. The Parish Aid Society completed the shortfall with the proceeds from a benefit concert. Later, a church organ was donated.
Divine worship was held in the new redwood church for the first time two weeks before construction was completed on November 30, 1862. There was seating for 250 and Bishop Kip read the sermon. Regular services began the first Sunday in Advent. When St. John’s was officially consecrated in November of 1865, one month after the last of the building debt was paid off, a relieved vestty raised the rector’s salary to $140 a month. The Rev. Brotherton had earned his keep.7
By the 1870s, San Francisco was a thriving financial center. Telegraph wires connected the city to New York. Within the space of little more than a decade, the Mission was a bustling neighborhood connected by rail to the city center. St. John’s started to enjoy the prosperity of the age.
The Rev. Brotherton was the catalyst for founding St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco on July 1, 1871, becoming its first superintendent. When he fell ill a year later, he was succeeded by Elias Berdsall, who made the radical move to abolish pew rents. Under Alfred Todhunter (1876-81) St. John’s was refurbished and a rectory was constructed.
St. John’s parish had a distinct identity within the Diocese. It attracted individuals who were eager to build their own community and live by their own rules. ”While the church has never been the religious home of a rich or fashionable congregation,” reported The Pacific Churchman, “it has always been the chosen field for a small but growing band of quiet, earnest, and practical Christian workers.”8
The Mission’s desirability as a place to live fueled a building boom that taxed the patience of the parish. Thanks to the acid works next door, parishioners literally gagged and choked their way through the Sunday service. Just as distracting was Woodward’s Garden, a popular city amusement park across the road. Day-trippers thronged the neighborhood.
Howling hyenas, a roaring lion, and the din of the Woodward brass band drowned out the St. John’s choir, prompting furious protests from the rector. Mr. Woodward ordered his musicians to cease playing during church services but was less successful in quieting the beasts in his park.9
By the 1880’s, 300 people regularly attended Sunday service. To accommodate the new parishioners, and reportedly to prevent the establishment of a rival parish, the Rev. Edward B. Spalding (1881-1900) and the vestry founded a network of missions throughout the Mission District. These included the Chapels of the Holy Innocents (1883), Good Shepherd (1887), and Epiphany (1897). Trinity School for boys was brought to St. John’s in 1881 and the Irving Institute for girls was founded at the Rev. Spalding’s behest in 1882. St. John’s led the revival of St. Luke’s Hospital, and was responsible for the Poor House and other charities within its domain.10
The Rev. Spalding, it seemed, couldn’t be stopped. The beloved redwood church was torn down and replaced with a grandiose $57,000 cathedral-sized building in 1891. Designed to comfortably hold 700 on Sundays, but able to seat 1,500 for special observance days, the new St. John’s caused a sensation around the country with its astounding Byzantine design “built on the plan of a Greek cross.”11
“Great freedom has been taken by the architect,” declared a national architectural journal. In fact the architect, basing his design on Trinity Church in Boston, went wild. Few buildings in San Francisco better
reflected the flamboyance and kitsch of the Gilded Era as the new St. John’s. There was a plated copper dome roof. There were turrets and spires. There was a vast underground crypt. The chapel includeda special viewing gallery for the girls from the Irving Institute.12 The baptismal font, which memorialized two little girls “gone to paradise,” was described as “the finest of its kind in the United States … the memorial piece is about six feet in height [and] both figures are of the purest white marble. They were sculptured in Italy.” The two girls were the deceased granddaughters of the same Nirs. Greene who had rescued the drenched children so many years before.13
Critics were divided on what some viewed as the Rev. Spalding’s folly. Julian Avenue, which a generation earlier had consisted of bogs and pastures, now resembled a corner of Czarist Moscow. The new St. John’s “provoked the
appellation of St. Rufus,” sniffed The Pacific Churchman, and its exterior had “a beauty all its own.” Many parishioners, aghast at the design and the final bill, drifted away. The parish, which was already supporting numerous evangelical and charitable enterprises, plunged into debt. The Rev. Spalding, under enormous strain, suffered a breakdown and was replaced as rector in 1900 by Louis Sanford.14
From 1900 to 1906, the Rev. Sanford worked tirelessly to restore parish morale, trim the debt, and turn ‘St. Rufus’ around. Prominent among the parishioners was James Rolph, a future mayor of San Francisco and governor of California.
On April 18 1906, came the great calamity that brought the Rev. Sanford’s work to a crashing halt. A massive earthquake shattered San Francisco. Infernos consumed what was left standing and an estimated 3,000 citizens perished.
Although the Mission survived the worst of the earthquake, ‘St, Rufus’ was dynamited to form a firebreak. Curiously, Julian Avenue was never in any real danger from the flames. Wild rumors flew that the vestry and James Rolph, who played a prominent role in organizing relief efforts in the Mission, had lobbied City Hall to blow up the church with the goal of clearing his predecessor’s debt. The Pacific Churchman noted only that the demolition left the parish “with just enough money to pay off its long-standing indebtedness.” 15
For the next four years, Sunday services were held in a shack on the church grounds. The Rev. Sanford departed in 1908 to become the first bishop of the Missionary District of San Joaquin in 1911. His successor, E.H. Benson, presided over the building and consecration of the third St. John’s in February 1910.
The “new” St. John’s was modeled after St. Stephen’s in Norwich, England, drawing in light with high windows and a soaring ceiling in Perpendicular Gothic or Tudor Lantern style. Ninety years later, the church designed by Herbert Maggs and Ernest Coxhead remains a sentimental favorite in a city renowned for its elegant architecture. From ground level the church’s white trim arches rise reassuringly above the Mission, a picture of grace in a tough neighborhood. But in keeping with the new modesty of the age, the price came to $45,000 and was mainly paid for by church donations from the East Coast. Seating was included for 400.16
The earthquake ended an era in more ways than one. The parish was shattered. Many parishioners were left homeless or destitute, while others moved away. Over time, the Mission sank into despair and poverty, best known for its flophouses and warehouses, mean streets and skid-row feel. The population turned over again and again and it seemed that St. John’s best days were behind it. The parish, already experiencing financial difficulties by 1918, welcomed and bade farewell to rectors in 1915, 1918, 1921, 1922, 1925, 1928, and 1930.
We have glimpses of daily life within the parish during this period. In 1917 there were 37 marriages, 40 burials, and the church counted 258 communicants. Fourteen Sunday School teachers taught 150 pupils. The church and its parsonage were valued at $50,000 and the rector, William Ford Nichols, drew a salary of $1,500.17
In October 1918, one month before Armistice ceremonies ended World War One, the Red Cross unit of St. John’s held an all day session for “the relief and comfort of our soldiers.” The Women’s Guild met every second Tuesday. The Daughters of the King Guild met once a month and the Knights of King Arthur met every Tuesday evening. The ladies of the Calendar Club were scheduled to host “the usual social evening for enlisted men, provided there be no quarantine to interfere.”
Records for 1923 show that the parish had a Women’s Auxiliary, Men’s Club, Sir Galahad Club, Boy Scout troupe, Daughters of the King Guild, Young People’s Fellowship and St. John’s Guild. The rector’s salary was up to $1,800. St. John’s raised $1,980 for “Near East Relief,” $287 for St. Luke’s Hospital, and $1,045 for a “Jerusalem and East Mission.” Church members, defined as those baptized, numbered 495.18
St. John’s was hard hit by the Great Depression. By the early 1930s the 11 a.m. Sunday service averaged 50 communicants, then plunged to fewer than 40 in 1934, at which time the decision was made to hire a lay reader, Mr. A.G. Clarke, instead of a new rector. Building repairs were neglected. The maintenance contract for the church organ was voided.19 The regular funds balance-on-hand on January 1, 1939 came to $5.64. This was a church that spent $80.11 on electricity, two dollars on garbage collection and one dollar on communion wine for the whole of 1938.20
Still, St. John’s was a giving community. At Christmas 1939 the Daughters of the King Guild distributed 35 glasses of marmalade, 35 glasses of Jell-O topped with whipped cream (“daintily wrapped and tied with brightly colored paper and ribbon”), and oranges, cakes and cigarettes to the sick and needy.21
In the summer of 1940, Bishop Karl Block announced an “extensive and intensive” plan to revitalize St. John’s.
The Bishop wanted to use St. John’s as his personal base for missionary work. His plan consisted of three steps: he would hire a new rector; three seminarians would use St. John’s as their base from which to evangelize in the Mission; and Grace Cathedral’s resources would be placed at the disposal of the vestry.22 “This is the first real action we have had at St. John’s for a long while, and to me the outlook is quite promising,” wrote Treasurer F.J. Nicholas.23
Long-standing parishioner Elizabeth Rolph, keeper of the flame for her dead father, James Rolph, was not convinced. She wrote Mr. Clarke that she was “very dubious about this regeneration … I am willing (against my better judgement) to cooperate [with] the Bishop’s program.” But she would prefer to “discontinue my payments … To me St. Mary’s has great possibilities of becoming an outstanding Episcopal Church whereas I cannot see the same opportunity for St. John’s.”24
Her brother, John Jr., was more candid: “St. John’s should be abandoned as I see no possible chance of its future success in its
present location.” 25
The vestry apparently had second thoughts about giving Bishop Block a green light in parish affairs. He soon learned they had neglected to provide sleeping arrangements and hot meals for the seminarians. “You will see that the boys are out of pocket,” complained the diocesan accountant. He demanded the vestry come up with $35.55 to cover the seminarians’ transportation and food costs. Letters flew back and forth across town. Tempers flared.26
By November 4, Bishop Block bad had enough. “I have come to the unhappy conclusion that if we cannot work together in a Christ-like spirit for the ends outlined I shall on December 31st withdraw the three students from St. John’s, and permit the parish to determine its own life and destinies,” he wrote the Vestry. “I have no condemnation of anyone, only a profound sense of regret that this aspect of our forward movement seems to have bogged down utterly.”27
The vestry responded in a fury. When they obtained a check for $300 from an unnamed donor referred to internally as “our good friend,” it was earmarked for building repairs. Not a penny went to pay for the seminarians’ room and board. 28 And they drew up a resolution demanding the immediate resignation of the Bishop’s favorite, the lay reader Mr. Clarke. 29
“Gentlemen of the Vestry,” replied an exasperated Bishop Block, “I am not in sympathy with this course … I plan definitely to withdraw the three seminarians, and to leave the parish to achieve a unified solution of its problems.” He wiped his hands of St. John’s because “we cannot count upon enthusiastic and sacrificial cooperation.”30
Having run out the Bishop, the vestry was now at leisure to dispatch the hapless Mr. Clarke. The problem was that he wouldn’t be
pushed.31 On December 2, five members of the vestry resigned “as a protest against the further incumbency of Mr. Clarke at St. John’s” and the “friction and disharmony” his presence engendered. Yet even with the vestry dissolved, he held on.32
Finally, in July 1941 Mr. Clarke received a letter informing him “with sincere regret” that his resignation “will be acceptable at the August 1941 Vestry meeting.”33
Through the 1940s, St John’s did what came naturally. It muddled through. Temporary relief came in 1947 with the Rev. John Furlong. He inspired confidence and bolstered attendance to its best level in years. But other rectors passed through in 1949 and 1950 (twice) without making an impression.
From 1951 to 1957 the Rev. Vern Swartzfarger, author of a popular book on teenagers called The Bell Ringers and affectionately known as “the Padre,” served at St. John’s. He earned a reputation around San Francisco for his ‘St. John’s Kids World’, a weekly Sunday evening happening where 150 local children “worship and play together, regardless of race, color and creed.” When asked by The San Francisco News what his motto was, the Padre memorably responded: “I’d fight for any kid. He’s worth it.”34
By 1961 St. John’s had attracted the concern of Bishop Pike. The Diocese was facing a historic failure south of Market Street, an area that included one third of San Francisco’s population. “Here Protestantism, it would appear, is dying,” concluded an internal diocesan report. Church membership had collapsed. St. John’s, which the report noted had “the most serious real estate problem in the Deanery,” was in desperate need of at least $25,000 “to keep the weather out … It is, in modern planning, rather badly located in a residential block which is on the edge of a semi-industrial zone.”35
The report suggested the “abandonment of certain of the [Diocesan] buildings” and urged the implementation of a vigorous commitment of resources by the Diocese into the Mission district to salvage what they could. A year later, when the Diocese conducted a formal survey of all its parishes, St. John’s was in free-fall. The report found a “lack of vision in leadership, discouragement; financial crisis; failure to relate to neighborhood.” Officially, at least, there were 109 communicants.36
“In summary, this church is in transition, but has, nevertheless, the dual responsibility of ministering to its present membership lovingly and effectively while at the same time it begins to deepen its relationship with its own neighborhood,” said the report. “This is no easy task, and it will require a great deal of blood, sweat, tears, and prayer… On a brighter note, there is every reason to believe that this can happen and that the needs of more people will be met …”37
In 1968 St. John’s was stripped of parish status when the Diocese learned that only a dozen members were left. At age 111, St. John’s prepared to close its doors.
Winston Ching later recalled that at nights he would walk past St. John’s on his way home from work: “The doors of the church were always locked. The church, and what went on here, remained a mystery to me.”38 The mystery was cleared up for him in 1970 when he was appointed vicar. This was a final attempt by Bishop Kilmer Myers to save St. John’s. It was very much a gamble and an act of faith on his part.
The parish house was rented out to the city as a residential alcohol rehabilitation treatment center. The church space was rented out to a Head Start kindergarten program. The Bishop informed Father Ching that no salary would be forthcoming, but he was free to experiment with his ministry as he saw fit. The congregation could only pay him $25 a week. If St. John’s could prove it still had a role to play in the life of the Mission, said the Bishop, then he would guarantee its survival.
Winston Ching went to work. St. John’s was certified as a site for alternative community service for those who opposed serving in the Vietnam War. Over the next several years a dozen conscientious objectors at a time used their plumbing, teaching, photography, and carpentry skills to good use in the church.
Spritely widow Emily Watson, known as “Miss Emily” to one and all, earnestly lectured the men on the health perils posed by “venerable disease” and fed them up on beef dinners in her Minna Street flat. Miss Emily also cleaned out the long neglected sanctuary ( compared by parishioner John Gardner to the Macy’s Halloween Parade) and worked with Barbara Colt in the St. John’s Thrift
Shop. 39 Gardner, a student, was the church’s unpaid organist and slept in an alcove behind the organ pipes on weekends.
Claudia Viek, then twenty-two years old, remembers “walking through the Mission one day and finding this oasis of Anglicanism in a pretty depressed area. There were only two pews of people on either side of the aisle. “40
St. John’s Tutoring Center, later to become the St. John’s Educational Thresholds Center, was founded in 1971. Programs were instituted that offered practical skills like pottery, carpentry, photography, sewing, and tutoring to neighborhood children. Closely tied to St. John’s, its status as a non-profit organization meant it could appeal for federal funding in its mission to provide community outreach. When federal funding ended in 1978 volunteers under Elizabeth Specht kept the SJETC’s doors open.
By 1972 communicants numbered 40. A year later they were at 63. Fr. Ching’s shrewd decision to institute High Church worship proved popular and novel. His acceptance of gays and lesbians earned the parish a reputation for diversity and tolerance.
Smoke billowed over Mission Street and fire trucks screamed across the city on the evening of July 11, 1974, to converge on a three alarm blaze. St. John’s was on fire.41
The San Francisco Chronicle splashed the fire on its front page the next day, elbowing out the latest Watergate installment. Crowds numbering 500 had crammed the narrow streets around St. John’s, as the parish building and rectory were enveloped in flames at 8 p.m. They “stood their ground, even under constant showers of spray from high powered hoses aimed on the fire.” Fireman John Sweeney was seriously burned when he was struck with an electrical wire” and it was almost impossible for the stretcher to pass through the crowd.”
Serial arsonist Steven McAlister had struck again. The “nervous, red-haired young man,” described by the local press as a “troubled dishwasher,” admitted setting fires at six sites throughout San Francisco over an eighteen-month period. He was suspected in a terrible blaze that claimed 12 lives in a Mission tenement. He was eventually arrested in December 1975.42
“Since the shock of Thursday evening’s inferno … we have mucked through water, ash and debris,” wrote the Rev. James Brown, Fr. Ching’s successor. “Depressing as the destruction has been, there is joy in facing our new problems together. A wonderful spirit of cooperation is already binding our wounds … “43
St. John’s in the 1970s was a joyous community and parishioners remember James Brown’s tenure with great fondness. The charred parish house was turned into a garden, active membership climbed to 110 in 1976, and pledged income increased from $5,700 in 1972 to $31,000 in 1976. Parish work parties tackled weeds and wood rot, nourished by Miss Emily’s deviled eggs and pots of tea.
“Jim Brown managed to maintain a very loving balance between the older, single women and the young gay men who were drawn to St. John’s,” recalls Claudia Viek. “He was instrumental in bringing gay men into the parish. His outreach gave St. John’s a renewed sense of purpose.”
There were also dangers. One night, virtually on the church steps, the Rev: Brown and a parishioner were assaulted by youths yelling homophobic slurs. The rector spent a week in hospital and underwent plastic surgery on his face. \When a gay man was murdered in the Mission shortly afterwards, Jim Brown was invited by Bishop Myers to deliver a moving oration at Grace Cathedral. This event, perhaps more than any other, reinforced the image of St. John’s in the city as a place of refuge and prayer for gays and lesbians and their friends and families.44
On Saturday, October 29, 1977, an obviously delighted Bishop Myers readmitted St. John’s to parish status within the Diocese.
In the years since, St. John’s has experienced the tumult of its times in typical form, unbowed and rolling with the punches. Through recessions, the AIDS plague, a changing neighborhood and many marriages, burials, and baptisms, St. John’s continues to survive and prosper. After 143 years, the community has been defined by such characteristics as resilience, compassion, patience and good cheer.
In a letter to mark St. John’s 130th anniversary in 1987, Bishop William E. Swing delivered a powerful tribute. AIDS had cut its way through the parish. Funerals were held on average once a month through the mid-1980s. The Rev. John Eastwood struggled with this new disaster and with falling attendance. Wrote Bishop Swing: “I know of no other congregation through the years that has been plagued by such an unending list of calamities. Yet this congregation has proven to be tough in the very best sense of that word. Tough when nature has gone awry. Tough when epidemics have brought a scourge. Tough in the midst of serving the community. Tough like Jesus Christ ill his passion.”45
When the Rev. David Norgard arrived in 1994, a new crisis arose that demanded immediate attention. The 84-year-old church was in terrible shape with a leaky roof, unsound floor and walls, and a collapsed bell tower. Membership had fallen to 40. There were serious reservations about even attempting a restoration of the old building. But that is exactly what the parish did, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in the form of a building campaign. St. John’s was given a once-in-a
Now, in 1999, the bell tower is back up, the interior fully restored, the gardens landscaped, and a new roof installed with membership up to 120. The Tutoring Center is flourishing. Oasis California, the diocesan gay and lesbian ministry, is headquartered in St. John’s. The Mission, stagnant and neglected for eight decades, is now coming back to life as a cultural and counter-cultural center.
Through the red doors on Julian Avenue, we see the hope and promise of the new century. This parish has deservedly earned its
reputation as a place for diverse people, inquiring minds, and open hearts.
Through AIDS and arson, earthquake and eviction, debt and dynamite, the doors of St. John’s have stayed open. Mrs. Greene set the precedent back in 1858 when she broke in to outwit the landlord. Those who came after her were very much in the same mold -spirited, practical types who were deadly serious about their church. Pyromaniacs, creditors, bothersome bishops, and the Methodist Society were simply hurdles to be overcome along the way. And remember the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake was nothing compared to the vestry’s decision to dynamite. As Bishop Swing said, “St. John’s is tough like Christ in his passion.”
The old lady on Julian Avenue inspires a great loyalty among those who know her best. For most of us it was love at first sight. We each remember the first time we saw the steeple, or walked up the steps and into the sunlit garden, heard the laughter and chatter, or smelled the incense and heard the bells for the first time. And we wonder who will be the next friend to walk through the red doors on Julian Avenue.
1 The Pacific Churchman, “Important History of St. John’s Parish; Notes Concerning Their Organization; Where They are located,” Nov. 1887 (exact date and pages unknown). This article, from the St. John’s archives, contains a lengthy account of the 25th anniversary service held to commemorate the building of the first St. John’s in 1862. The diocesan archives in San Francisco are missing copies of The Pacific Churchman for 1887.
2 Ibid. Unfortunately we do not have Mrs. Greene’s first name.
3 Ibid. The planked road referred to here later became Mission Street.
4 The Pacific Churchman remarked: “When it is remembered that this was in ante-railroad days, before the competition of trade in California reduced the cost of living to the present standard, it forces the conclusion that the first rector must have practiced quite as rigid economy as the parish organization.”
5 Ibid. The architect, Mr. S.H. Williams, worked off a First Pointed style design suggested by the Rev. Brotherton. Bids for construction were opened at a meeting of the vestry June 30, 1862, and the bid of Mr. J.W. Sims was accepted for $4,750. Construction commenced one month later.
9 “Mr. Woodward ordered his musicians to cease playing … ” Unit of Research and Field Study, Evanston Ill., Study of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of California, Book VI: San Francisco; Historical Sketch of St. John the Evangelist, 1962.
10 Ibid., p2
11 Ibid. p3.
12 Scientific American, Architects and Builders Edition, September 890. From an article originally reported in the New York Sun.
13 The unveiling of the font merited a lengthy article in The Pacific Churchman. Again, the article is undated but was kept in the St. John archives. It is most likely from the early 1890s. The Pacific Churchman,” A Memorial Font; Dedicated in the Church of St. John; A Son of Joseph R. Grismer the First Child Christened in It.”
14 The Pacific Churchman, “The Church of St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco, (probably March?) 1910. “The expense of erecting it saddled the parish with a heavy mortgage indebtedness which came in time to frighten away newcomers and finally caused the breakdown of the rector, Dr. Spalding.”
16 Rev. Dr. Guy Fitch Lytle, Solemn Festival Eucharist on the 130th Anniversary of the Founding of the Episcopal Church of Saint John the Evangelist, San Francisco, November 22, 1987.
17 Diocese of California, Parochial Report for St. John the Evangelist, December 1, 1916 to December 1, 1917, December 18, 1917.
18 Diocese of California, Parochial Report for St. John the Evangelist, January 1, 1923 to December 31, 1923 (undated).
19 Rev. Dr. Guy Fitch Lytle, op cit.
20 Treasurer’s Annual Report For the Year Ended December 31, 1939, FJ. Nicholas, Treasurer.
21 Financial Report of”Risen Life” Chapter, Daughters of the King, 1939, Jessie Thompson, Secretary, January 1940.
22 Letter to Christopher Krausefrom FJ. Nicholas, Treasurer at St.john’s Church, September 9, 1940.
Church correspondence over the next year provides gripping accounts of the internal disputes, which wracked the parish in the early 1940s.
24 Letter from Elizabeth Jane Rolph to A.G. Clarke, September 23, 1940.
25 Letter from Ronald T Rolph to St. John’s, November 28, 1940.
26 Letter from R.R. Sumroy, Office of the Treasurer of the Diocese of California, to the St.john’s Vestry, October 4, 1940.
27 Letter from Rt. Rev. Karl M. Block, Bishop Coadjutor, to the Vestry of St. John’s, November 4, 1940.