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DOWNEY – Previously, in parts one and two, we learned of a small group of Methodists who began to meet in 1854. They asked the Annual Conference to assign a pastor to them. At first these early Methodists met in homes and open fields. Later they built the Los Nietos Collegiate Institute and held worship services in the schoolrooms.
Building a House
In 1873, California’s Civil War governor, John Gately Downey, along with several others, purchased large tracts of land in the Los Nietos valley. They began selling 50 acre parcels for $10.00 an acre. This was to become the town of Downey, but was of little notice at that time.
An article in the Los Angeles Herald of April 21, 1874, begins, “The tourist, traveler, or searcher after a permanent location, coming to Los Angeles, should not fail to visit Los Nietos settlement, lying twelve miles southeast of this city. The run down to the depot, which is located in the town of Los Nietos— the geographical center of the settlement—is made in thirty minutes. The first part of the road is lined on either side with orange groves, orchards, vineyards, gardens and small farms, with a plentiful dotting of neat cottage homes and country residences embowered in shady trees and partially covered with climbing vines; the whole presenting a picture pleasing to the eye and giving assurance of present comfort and future prosperity as gratifying to the resident as it is encouraging to the newcomer.”
The article contains no mention of former Governor Downey’s land development.
In October 1875, the Los Nietos Collegiate Institute property was sold to Dr. C.H. Riddick, a Methodist minister, and $2,000 of the sale price was added to a building fund for the erection of the congregation’s first adequate house of worship. Dr. Riddick, who was the pastor of this church during 1878-1879, served the school for two years without salary so that the money could he added to the building fund.
Through contributions of members and friends, sufficient funds were finally raised and, in 1877, during the second pastorate of the Rev. Williams Moores, the cornerstone was laid for a new church. The location was on the west side of College Avenue (Paramount Boulevard) and Alameda Street, approximately across the street from the school. The land was donated by W.H. Steel. Many in the congregation, lacking money, contributed their labor. In December 1877, the building was completed.
A notable feature of this first church building was the 110-ft. steeple, topped by an enormous golden hand with the forefinger pointing heaven¬ward. An 800 lb. bronze bell, which was cast in Ohio and shipped around the “Horn,” was raised fifty feet and placed in the belfry. This impressive bell called the people to worship and reminding them that Sunday is the Lord’s day. It also tolled for the dead, roused the people in time of fire, and announced such events as the end of the Spanish-American War.
Redwood lumber lined the walls and ceiling of the church. The center section of benches had a middle division separating the men from the women, even husbands and wives. The division remained for twenty years and was only removed after a controversy over what was referred to as “promiscuous seating.” There was an “Amen Corner” at the right of the pulpit where some of the older men sat and encouraged the minister. The first musical instrument was a foot pumped melodeon (organ) given by Mrs. C.H. Riddick and the first organist was Mrs. Frank E. Adams.
The Los Angeles Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South convened in this church at least ten dif¬ferent times. The preachers and lay delegates were entertained as honored guests in the homes of members and friends. They were given the best food and lodging the community could afford. Money was scarce but hospitality was boundless.
The Move North
The biggest change to the original church building came in 1891, but what led to this change started 20 years earlier. In 1871 the Southern Pacific railroad built its line to Anaheim, and the town of Downey was later founded along the route. This resulted in a shift of population and civic activities to the north.
Sunday morning services were still held in the church, but separate Sunday evening services were held at the church and in Manning Hall in the new town of Downey. Sunday School classes were held each Sunday afternoon at the Presbyterian Church, which was then at the corner of Second and La Reina in Downey.
The Church Annual Conference of 1891 recommended that the church he moved, intact, into the town of Downey, to be closer to the new population center. Some of the members objected to the move, and a few even withdrew their membership. One of the dissenters, a Captain Renfro, owned property between the spot where the church was located and the proposed new site. He refused permission to move the building across his property.
The majority of the congregation was not going to let this refusal stand in their way. They gathered one summer evening in 1891 and, as Captain Renfro slept, they began the move, crossing Captain Renfro’s land under cover of darkness. Teams of horses pulled the entire church building about a mile north, its steeple and golden hand still pointing upward through the night. The church was placed at the southwest corner of Dolan and Second Streets where the structure continued to serve the congregation until 1922.
By then, as Downey grew, a larger sanctuary was needed. You can read about this in the next chapter of the Downey United Methodist Church history.
Richard Daggett is the historian for Downey United Methodist Church. Parts 1 and 2 of this series are posted online at thedowneypatriot.com
Published: May 8, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 04