By Cynthia Robertson
Every day, thousands of drivers pass through Mission Valley on Interstate 8. Perched high on a hill above the freeway is the First United Methodist Church of San Diego (FUMCSD). It sits like a sentry over the city. Inside the light-filled sanctuary, the faint sound of traffic can still be heard, a constant reminder that the church has remained in the heart of the city, even from its humble beginnings one and a half centuries ago.
This year, the church will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a series of special events. There will be a book launch on Jan. 30 by Krista Ames-Cook, author of “Images of America: First United Methodist Church of San Diego.”
Over the course of nearly four years, even as she worked full-time, Ames-Cook wrote the book, which began as a mere concept in 2014 when the church was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Mission Valley location. She used vintage photographs from local archives, including the church’s collection.
The book is also an intriguing story of how San Diego has changed in the past 150 years. As the church congregation expanded and its ministries grew, the church has had to move a number of times from its original location.
“As the city grew, so did the church,” Ames-Cook said.
One of the most surprising things Ames-Cook discovered while doing research for the book was architect Irving John Gill’s impact on San Diego. Known as “Jack” to his friends, Gill is considered a pioneer of the modern movement in architecture. He had no formal education in architecture and never attended college. Instead, he apprenticed under architects in Syracuse, New York and then later in Chicago, Illinois. He moved to San Diego in 1893 for health reasons and launched his own architecture studio specializing in large residences in eclectic styles. Gill designed several buildings considered examples of San Diego’s best architecture.
“The Gothic Revival sanctuary that Gill designed for First Church in 1906 was his only example in this style,” Ames-Cook said. First Church worshipped at this location at the corner of Ninth and C streets from 1907 until 1964. It was later demolished due to earthquake safety concerns.
In addition to the many homes that Gill designed in San Diego, he also created the fountain in Horton Plaza, featured in chapters three and nine of the book, and the former Pickwick Theatre, featured in chapter two.
“We can better understand the way the San Diego grew as a city from the history of First Methodist Church of San Diego,” Ames-Cook said.
For example, San Diego is often referred to as the birthplace of California since this was the location for the first permanent Spanish settlement when Mission San Diego de Alcala was built in 1769. One hundred years later, as more people started arriving in San Diego from the East Coast and other parts of America, the first Methodist prayer meeting was held along the waterfront in a former Army barracks. Over the hill from the area San Diegans know as Old Town today, Alonzo Horton established New Town and set up roads and parcels of land that became the foundation for San Diego’s Downtown.
From 1870 to 1906, the church was in the center of what is now Downtown near Horton Plaza. After a move few blocks northeast, the congregation worshipped from 1907 to 1964 in the Gothic Revival-style sanctuary. Even with additions, First Church outgrew this space, and so it moved again in 1964 to its current place, a Spanish Contemporary-style church in Mission Valley.
Over the years, the church’s reach from Mission Valley has expanded to multiple sites and several congregations, including to the Point Loma United Methodist Church. This church has many examples of serving San Diego through its various locations and ministries.
John Fanestil, pastor of discipleship at FUMCSD, believes that the church is the oldest Protestant congregation in San Diego. When the church held its first prayer meeting in 1869, San Diego was still forming an identity as a border town in a new state but was an attractive place for people coming from both the South and the East, Fanestil explained.
“We are still living in this hope and dream, of being a church for all people,” he said.
In doing research for the book, Ames-Cook learned something else. “It’s important for people to understand the history of their church to know and appreciate the role it has played in helping and serving the community where it is located,” she said.
For example, in 1876 the pastor of the church officiated a marriage by telegraph. The church’s former location near Horton Plaza was also the site of community lectures in the late 1800s, including one for the women’s suffrage movement when Susan B. Anthony spoke in June 1895.
When the church moved to Ninth and C streets, a set of chimes, or bells, was gifted to the city of San Diego in 1908 with First Church as the custodian of the bells for the people.
“These same chimes are in the Mission Valley bell tower today,” said Ames-Cook, who will speak of this and many other historical facts at the book launch on Jan. 30 from 12:15 to 1 p.m.
As is true of any event at First United Methodist Church of San Diego, all people are welcome to come to the book launch, which will be held in Linder Lounge. For more information, go to fumcsd.org or call 619-297-4366.
—Cynthia Robertson is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.