First Presbyterian Church of Downey marks 125 years

DOWNEY - First Presbyterian Church of Downey will celebrate 125 years of ministry and mission this weekend. The celebration's theme is "Generations of Generosity."Under the direction of the national Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which had its origin in Kentucky and Tennessee, First Presbyterian began as a mission Sunday school in 1886. To this day, the social hall of First Presbyterian Church of Downey is called Cumberland Hall. Rev. W.J. Browning was FPC's founding pastor. A small house of worship and a manse (pastor's house) with a windmill was erected on La Reina Avenue and Second Street in Downey. In 1907, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church united with the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the church in Downey became First Presbyterian Church. In 1909, electricity was added to the facility. The early years of FPC were difficult, but a small band of believers hung together through a series of temporary pastors. Under Rev. H.P. Ingram, the church was reorganized in April 1893 with 22 charter members. Sugar Wright Blythe, one-time president of Nietos Valley Bank, was chosen as an "outstanding member" in this period. Young Cameron Townsend, who went on to found one of the most influential Christian missions -- Wyfliffe Bible Translators and Summer Institute of Linguistics -- was nurtured at the church in these days. Wycliffe is respected worldwide for their linguistic studies, and they have completed 700 translations of the Bible and are at work at 1,500 more translations currently. FPC was incorporated under the laws of the state of California on Oct. 9, 1921. That year, when the membership was 100, the Sunday school attracted 162 children. The congregation started a Spanish-speaking Sunday school at this time. In 1922, a small "hut" was erected around a peppertree. In addition to housing the Sunday school, civic groups such as Kiwanis and the Chamber of Commerce also met in this building. In 1926, under the leadership of Rev. C.S. Tanner, the congregation purchased the lot on the corner of what was Crawford (now Downey Avenue) and Seventh streets for $7,820.75. The building committee decided to build an "old mission style" facility for worship, Sunday school, social and recreational activities, and a new manse. The little congregation saw a much bigger future and built a church at a cost of about $70,000, with a sanctuary that could seat 325. The new manse cost $5,500. With its classic rose stained-glass window, the structure stands today much as it did in 1926. On Sept. 7, 1927, the first worship service was held in the new building. A copper box was placed in the cornerstone with memorabilia from its early years. In 1929, the church had 237 members. FPC's 90-year history book states that "an internal dispute over the scope of the building project...swirled around the pastor," causing many members to withdraw along with their financial support. Then the nation was plunged into financial disaster during the Great Depression. These combined circumstances created the challenges for the church for several years. The church has extensive records of correspondence between the bank and the officers of the church when they could neither make mortgage payments nor the interest on the mortgage -- $10 a month! Girlie Jenison, later Girlie Strosnider, a stalwart and financially capable member, paid the back interest and mortgage for a time. The congregation rebounded and in April 1941 there was a mortgage-burning ceremony celebrating the final payment marking the congregation clear of debt and encumbrances. Two other congregations were housed for a period of time in the late 1950s. Temple Ner Tamid and the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Downey both were hosted at First Presbyterian Church while their buildings were under construction. FPC continues to have a close relationship with these congregations through the Downey Interfaith Fellowship. Many pastors have contributed to the long history of the church. Rev. Howard Gage was pastor of visitation, and on his death in 1958 the Gage Scholarship Fund was established to help students continue their education. The fund was recently increased by the Gage family, and the interest continues to this day to provide financial assistance for students of the congregation. Rev. Rodney Cogswell was pastor from 1944 to 1968. His leadership at a time when the city of Downey grew rapidly helped to grow the church to over 1,200 members with more than 850 enrolled in Sunday school (at one time the 17th largest Sunday school in the Presbyterian Church of the United States). Rev. Cogswell was also very active in the community, evidenced by his election as Man of the Year in 1965. But trouble marked the end of his pastorate, and he was asked to vacate the pulpit in the fall of 1968. During this same period a church group called the Mariners provided excellent programming and spiritual nurture for the members of First Presbyterian Church. Mariners was a national organization with the PCUSA that had a nautical theme whose members were placed in "ships." An "admiral" provided leadership for the group. The FPC Mariners involved over 500 members at its height and contributed significantly to the mission of the church. They painted and remodeled rooms, upgraded equipment and furnishing, raised funds for numerous projects, and participated in many other events that furthered FPC's mission. They also had a lot of fun. More than 15 photo albums in the church archives preserve the history of the organization. In 1969, Rev. John Toay was called to be the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Downey. Rev. Toay would also serve the church and the community for 25 years until his retirement in 1994. Since then he has continued to serve the Presbyterian Church as an interim pastor to many congregations. Since 1965 the church has reflected the national trend of declining membership in mainline churches and by 2003 the membership was about 200. In 2003, the church called Rev. Candie Blankman with the task of "turning their self-absorption outward." Since 2003 the lay leadership has dedicated their time and resources fully to this task. The church has reengaged in mission outside of its walls. They have established a sister-church relationship with a church in Danang, Vietnam, and support a young man serving there who interned at FPC from 2004-07. In 2005, the congregation received a large estate gift and decided to use the funds to hire staff and create a wider ministry that would reflect the changing community of Downey. Through this gift and a grant received from the larger denomination, a multicultural ministry was launched. The multicultural mission was focused on reaching ethnic, generational and socioeconomic diversity to better reflect our changing community. Using these funds, in 2007 the congregation acquired Alfredo Delgado, a Venezuelan by birth, as Student Ministries Director. The centerpiece of this multicultural ministry established an after-school program called Kidz Konnection for the sole purpose of providing a safe and enriching environment for school children in the community. The program provides academic tutors, introductory music lessons, art classes, and noncompetitive sports Monday through Thursday each week. In 2008, the congregation completed a major renovation of the sanctuary. While maintaining original architecture, the renovation updated decor, lighting and sound. FPC's formal membership today is about 240. However, 249 households and 395 individuals are members and friends of the congregation. Rev. Toay will be honored at the 125th Celebration Worship Service on Nov. 20, where he will be granted the title of Pastor Emeritus, an honorary title recognizing his years of service. Many other pastors and associates and staff members have served the church along with the hundreds of faithful members. Many of these people are honored through the memorial windows that grace the sanctuary and parlor. Bernice Hammer, 1915-2003, who served the church for 49 years, 21 years as secretary to Rev. Toay, will also be honored at the service when a memorial window will be dedicated in her name. The 125th Anniversary Celebration begins Friday, Nov. 18, at 7:30 p.m. with a Multicultural Celebration Service and a Taste of FPC, featuring foods from many countries. Then Saturday, Nov. 19, at 7 p.m., an organ concert by gifted and entertaining musician Christopher Martin will feature a custom-made organ by the artist. This concert is free to the public. The grand finale will be an inspiring worship service on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 10 a.m. All are welcome!

********** Published: November 17, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 31