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DOWNEY – Character, faith, and conviction have always been an integral part of the development of Downey.
For the earliest settlers who journeyed across land and sea to the Golden West, civic life began with the building of the first communal structure: a house of worship.
Vital to these pioneers, the annals of religious life in Downey had their humble beginnings in the 1860s prior to the establishment of the actual township of Downey in 1873.
Those first services, conducted at the incipient communities of Gallatin and College Settlement, marked the establishment of several denominations in Downey including the Methodist, Catholic, and Christian churches.
The First Baptist Church of Downey was, likewise, founded by a little company of believers who not only had faith in God, but also in the possibility of creating a new life in the Los Nietos Valley. Since 1868, the church has had an unbroken history of Christian service.
It was in the Gallatin settlement on Sept. 19, 1868 that seven people, John Newton, his wife, and son Willis; Olive Payett; Melvina Cole and her two daughters, Ann Baker and Margaret Cole, gathered to start the valley’s first Baptist church, called Los Nietos Baptist Church.
The new Los Nietos Baptist Church was the only church in a 10-mile radius. Before it was established, settlers had to travel to El Monte to worship.
The congregation of the Los Nietos Baptist Church, which originally met inside a two-story “little red school house,” later known as Gallatin Elementary School, was one of the earliest to be established in the turbulent days following the California Gold Rush.
According to a Downey LiveWire newspaper article published in September 1930, “the Downey Baptist Church is the oldest active church of its denomination in Southern California. Organized by a few hardy pioneers…the organization was perfected under an arbor made of tall mustard stalks.”
The Rev. Isham Fuqua, a farmer from Rincon, a community near present-day Chino, served as the church’s first pastor.
Parson Fuqua, as he was commonly called, was the founder of a number of churches and pastored several Baptist church congregations, including those in El Monte, Azusa and Rincon. Today, Fuqua is numbered among the most influential pioneer clergyman of the Baptist church in California history.
One weekend every month, Fuqua rode 50 miles to Downey to conduct church services. Due to the danger of bandits and outlaws, a group of men from Rincon usually rode with Fuqua half way through his journey until met by a group from the church who rode with him the remainder of the way.
The church never paid Fuqua despite the fact he often braved violent storms and flooded rivers to conduct services.
Historians remember him as a forceful speaker and preacher with sincerity and zeal, which made him a potent force in the work of the church. He preached for six years in Downey then left in 1874 to organize a new church in Azusa.
In his absence, the Rev. Israel C. Curtis became pastor of the church and oversaw the construction of the church’s first building.
In 1870, Judge M.D. Crawford purchased 400 acres of land in the new township of Downey. He donated a lot to the Los Nietos Baptist Church, and in the spring of 1874 construction of the church edifice began.
When the church incorporated, it took the name of the “First Baptist Church of Downey” and settled at its current location at 8348 East Third St.
Like many houses of worship of that time, the new church building’s design followed the rustic manner of traditional Gothic architecture, adapted to the simplicity of the American frontier.
Materials for the church building, which included square nails and redwood lumber shipped around the Horn and hauled by oxcart from the docks of San Pedro to Downey, cost just $300 and the labor was donated. The building was dedicated in March 1879.
Stained glass windows, which featured Christian symbols, were imported all the way from Belgium in 1899 and an Estey organ was purchased in New England in 1911. The new church also featured smooth dark wood pews, a pine floor and towering belfry. Palm and pepper tress were planted in front of the church and one of the first sidewalks in town was slated outside leading to the church building.
Initially, church services were held only once a month. The people would gather on the first Saturday and Sunday of the month to conduct the business of the church and to worship. Saturday morning was given to the preaching of the word and a general business meeting. In the evening the people would meet for a candle lighting service. Sunday at 11 a.m. the church would meet for morning worship followed by an evening evangelistic service.
The Baptists occupied the structure until 1921 when it was sold to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for $500 and moved bodily from its original site to a new location at Fifth and Dolan streets. Under the Rev. James Robertson, who led the First Baptist Church of Downey for 32 years from 1913-1945, the congregation erected a new mission-style church building with a seating capacity of 250 in 1923. It was a great undertaking at the time and cost about $25,000 to construct.
Meanwhile St. Mark’s took advantage of the old church building, which remained stable decades after its construction.
In the early 1940s, a representative from a redwood company expressed amazement at the soundness of the wooden structure. In fact, even Hollywood took notice of the “little white church,” which was featured in Columbia Pictures’ 1931 film “The Miracle Woman” starring Barbara Stanwyck.
In 1955, however, though still sound, the building was vacated as the growing St. Mark’s congregation began searching for another location. Also the nearly 80-year-old church was threatened by the expansion of Downey Community Hospital, which had been established next door.
Despite efforts by many residents, including prominent publisher K.C. Weiss, to keep the church in Downey, on Feb. 13, 1955, the vestry of St. Mark’s voted to sell the church to Walter Knott.
Rather than let it be demolished, Knott acquired the building, dismantled it, and preserving as much of the original as possible, reconstructed it according to modern safety codes in the heart of Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park.
Knott’s beloved father was an ordained minister, and Knott explained at the time that he moved it to the park because he wanted to create “a financially independent church.”
The church, which was placed alongside a lake, was renamed the Church of Reflections, becoming both a tourist attraction and worship center for employees and local residents for years.
In 2004, the non-denominational church, which continues to host dozens of weddings and special events each year, was moved again and placed across the street from the amusement park, where it still stands as a memorial to Downey’s pioneer heritage.
In the 1950s, one of the most popular pastors at the First Baptist Church of Downey was Dr. John (Jack) M. MacArthur, a preaching evangelist who had a radio program with a large listening audience. During his ministry, the church was filled to capacity every Sunday, according to church records.
MacArthur even once held a four-week tent crusade at the corner of Lakewood and Firestone boulevards, hoping to take his message outside the church walls. In 1954, MacArthur left the church and started his own in Burbank. However, today, his son, John F. MacArthur is a nationally known preacher-teacher with a large ministry of his own in Sun Valley.
In 1965, the present sanctuary was completed with new administrative offices, an educational unit, and a seating capacity of 928, at a cost of $600,000 under the leadership of then-pastor Dr. Milton Gould, who soon left the church to accept a position at Biola College in La Mirada. At the time the new structure was completed, the church’s membership was 1800, with 1400 enrolled in weekly Sunday school classes.
In subsequent years, the First Baptist Church of Downey started many community outreach programs, supported evangelical ministries around the world, and helped launch Baptist churches in Whittier, Huntington Park, Pico Rivera, and Compton.
Wanting to accommodate the increasing Spanish-speaking population in Downey, the church began services in Spanish in 1991.
Today, the First Baptist Church of Downey, which is lead by interim senior pastors Jon Castillo and Steve Shangraw, hosts multiple Sunday services and weekly Bible studies. In addition to the Spanish church, First Baptist also offers a variety of Sunday school classes and a traditional evening service with hymns, testimonies and prayer.
In 1968, during the church’s centennial celebration, then-pastor Dr. Harold Adams was asked about the next 100 years of the church. Adams boldly predicted the church would flourish by not only preaching the Bible, but also living the Bible.
“We will – I pray – be a strong, Bible-preaching, evangelical church with a real concern for the needs of men,” Adams said. “We will continue to minister with renewed zeal in the heart of Downey, with Downey at heart, preaching and demonstrating the heart of our Lord until He comes.”
After nearly 150 years of successful ministry, it’s quite possible that Pastor Adams’ prayer will come to pass as the First Baptist Church of Downey continues to stand as an emblem of Downey’s rich heritage, longstanding faith and unshakable dedication to character, integrity and goodwill.
Published: January 5, 2012 – Volume 10 – Issue 38