Looking back on...First Christian Church of Downey

DOWNEY - Downey has always been a city of faith.From its founding in 1873 until the present, the city has continually served as a fertile location for a diverse group of churches and religious institutions. During the 1860s, when migrant Southerners began settling in the incipient communities of Downey, small church congregations began to form within Los Nietos Valley; along with their many possessions and skills, the early pioneers also brought distinct religious views. From Catholics and Baptists, to Methodists and Presbyterians, Downey featured several Christian denominations, however, before any of these churches were established, the First Christian Church of Downey, on the corner of New and Fourth streets, stood in the center of the Downtown district as a quintessential symbol of Protestant worship for hundreds of settlers. In the fall of 1868, farmer-preacher William Justice, a native of Texas, moved to Downey and took up the task of starting a Christian Church under the Restoration Movement. While traveling through San Bernardino, Justice heard a stirring sermon by a radical evangelist named B.F. Standefer. At Justice's request, Standefer agreed to come to Downey and preach a series of sermons. On Sunday, January 3, 1869, Justice invited the whole community to come hear Standefer, marking the first service of the Christian Church of Downey. During this time, services were held in the small, frame schoolhouse of Methodist minister John Ardis, another transplant from the South. After several months, Ardis decided to establish a Methodist church on the property and the Christian Church congregation was asked to move. Ardis' small schoolhouse, near the corner of Paramount Boulevard and Alameda Street, would eventually become Alameda Elementary School. As a result, the Christian Church met in the homes of its members for many years. The church as well as the community gained a new identity in 1873 when Downey was established as a city upon the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Immediate growth began to take place as merchants moved their businesses closer to the railroad tracks. With over 125 acres at his disposal, former governor of California, John Gately Downey, and his Downey Land and Improvement Association started selling land in the lucrative Downtown area. Judge M.D. Crawford, a legal officer for Downey's association and an elder of the Christian Church, arranged for the purchase of the property near the center of town. John Downey sold it to the church for an honorary sum of one dollar. By 1874, a small frame building was constructed at the corner of New and Fourth streets. Redwood lumber, used to build the edifice was thrown overboard a ship and floated ashore at Alamitos Landing where it was loaded on wagons and hauled to Downey via oxcart. This original, white-washed structure, which cost nearly $700 to construct, featured a low porch, which spanned the front and three rectangular windows, which were located on either side of the building. Soon, money was raised for a bell, which, once installed in the belfry, was used to call the faithful to worship services. In August of 1877, under the leadership of Minister James M. Monroe, the First Christian Church of Downey opened one of the community's first colleges dedicated to training future church leaders. Although short-lived and plagued with financial difficulties, Southern Pacific College was a source of pride for the entire community. In fact, several prominent families in the community regularly attended the First Christian Church, including the Holloway, Rives, Crawford, Shortridge, Mayes, Phillips, Montgomery and Cochran families. From 1891 until 1900, the church lacked a full-time minister and many interim pastors oversaw the congregation. During this period, the church also experienced heightened levels of division over doctrinal controversies including the use of musical instruments in worship and missionary methods. Subsequently, with support for the church diminishing, the church closed its doors in 1910 and allowed the Church of Christ to establish a congregation in the building. Thirteen years later, a legal battle ensued when members of the Christian Church fought with members of the Church of Christ who refused to give the building back to the Christian Church. In 1923, the court ordered the Church of Christ to return the church building to the Christian Church, which reopened a few months later. The newly organized congregation of about 30 members caught the attention of Edward Sewall of Portland who accepted the position as senior minister. Known as a strong Bible teacher and active community leader, he served for nearly 15 years. After his death in 1938, the church asked his wife, Mrs. Bertha E. Sewall, to continue her husband's work. "Sister Sewall" as she was affectionately known, took on a difficult task, but under her 13 years of leadership, the church grew. She steadied the church during the wary, World War II years and led with great courage and compassion. At the age of 65, Sewall retired and veteran missionary, John T. Chase took the pulpit. Chase instilled a deeper passion for global mission work and oversaw a vast expansion of the church. Upon his retirement in 1968, the church had a new sanctuary, educational facilities and a large membership of seven hundred. Today, Dave Smith, senior pastor since 2003, leads the congregation, which now has nearly 380 active members. Though the building has been remodeled and renovated since that early frame church house, the history of the First Christian Church of Downey is still intact. The original bell, flanked by palm tress and impressions, stands in front of the church as a reminder of its humble beginnings. Moreover, the legacy of this First Christian Church demonstrates just how much faith played an important role in the lives of these rural settlers, who not only made Downey thrive; they made it home.

********** Published: August 26, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 19