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141 Great Years: First Congregational Church of Riverside

by Don Miller, Moderator

     In the stifling midsummer heat, two men shared a buggy on the long ride out to the proposed site for a new settlement carved out of the old Juan Bandini Land Grant.  They were Isaac Atherton, Senior Minister and founder of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, and John North, founder of the city of Riverside.

     The great flood of 1863 and the subsequent drought had wiped out ranching in much of Southern California and the great Spanish and Mexican land grants were being sold off.  The men drove across the Santa Ana River through the chaparral brush, stopping often to check the soil, and soon concluded that if water could be found, this land could prosper.  Reverend Atherton also noted that the clean dry air seemed to ease the respiratory illness that was causing him distress.  Both men decided to take a chance and set down roots.  North found the water and organized a town and Atherton began a little church with six members, including himself and his wife.

     The city of Riverside and the First Congregational Church of Riverside share a great deal of history.  Both were founded in 1872.  Many of the city’s pioneer leaders worshipped in the original little wooden church at Sixth and Vine streets.  In our 141 years, six mayors were members, including the longest serving mayor, Dr. Ron Loveridge, who served the city with distinction for 23 years and retired from office last December.  Cabinet members, corporate and educational leaders and many citrus farmers were counted in the pews.  The founder and Master of the Mission Inn, Frank Miller, was active from the mid 1870’s to the 1930’s.  The Community Hospital was a project of our members and the entire founding Board of the Evergreen Cemetery, Riverside’s first, were members.

     The second church building was constructed in 1887 at the present location of Mission Inn and Lemon.  At that time, Riverside’s Chinese Christians shared our building.  The children began collecting pennies in the 1890’s to purchase a stained glass window based on the famous Raphael painting of the Sistine Madonna that currently hangs in our parlor.  The third structure was built in 1912-1914 on the same site and was the first Spanish Baroque style building in California.  The style gained instant popularity and it was hoped that it would become a uniquely California style.  Many of the most popular buildings in the state are in this style.

     We are currently celebrating a century of service downtown.  A member is reported to have donated land for the first African American church in Riverside.  Booker T. Washington preached from our pulpit.  A strong ecumenical effort in Riverside was interrupted by WWI, but it anticipated the formation of UCC by almost 45 years.  In the 20s and 30s we shared our space with a Japanese congregation.  Frank Miller supported and underwrote the famous Supreme Court case, California vs. Harada (1918) that helped undermine the California Alien Land Law of 1913 and, ultimately, the Alien Exclusion Act.

     In WWII, troops were housed in our basement while nearby Camp Haan was being organized. Our stained glass sanctuary windows memorialize the four members who died overseas. The troubled sixties saw a large congregation and a desire to connect with the alienated youth of the time through the “7th Lemon” coffee house in our basement. Throughout it all, Troop 13 was one of the best Boy Scout Troops in Riverside.

Don Miller

Don Miller

In 1988, my family organized fund raising and installed a 24-bell carillon in our unique Spanish Baroque tower. In the 1990’s, FCC became an open and affirming congregation and we slowly began to grow again. This was a bold move and although some feared we would drive away members, it actually turned out that we became a magnet for disenfranchised and discarded believers from many backgrounds. Today we feed the poor every Wednesday with Project Food and have instituted the Student Run Health and Dental Clinic twice a month for all those who need medical and dental care.  We house Counseling groups, Crystal Meth Anonymous, AA, and NA. Currently we are agitating for the city to pass an ethical banking ordinance to slow the foreclosure mess.  We were instrumental in urging the city of Riverside to develop a homeless service center.  As the need for ministry has grown, we hired Associate Minister Hannah Burke last year to serve with our well-loved Senior Minister, Jane Quandt.

     Social justice, service and progressive Christian mercy have always been a driving force at FCC Riverside.  As we begin our second century in our building, we are reminded of our roots in the life and death of our dear sister, Bea Shewman who was on the cradle roll of our church in 1915. Both her parents were pioneer members.  She was a teacher, active in the California Teachers Association and National Education Association retired organizations.  She fought successfully to desegregate Riverside schools.  She predated me as Moderator in 1979 and began the “Circle of Friends” to comfort the ill and shut-in.  With her passing on January 31, 2013, she requested that gifts be given to Project Food to feed the poor and the homeless.  Bea’s life is emblematic of what and who we hope we are.  It is our earnest hope that 141 years from now, good works will still be performed in this place.

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