The Pioneer Church

The official name of the “Pioneer Church” is the Chatsworth Community Church, Los Angeles Cultural Historical Monument Number 14. The Oakwood Memorial Park Association, the Chatsworth Historical Society, and the congregation of St. Mary the Virgin Anglican-Rite Catholic Church are the caretakers of the monument which belongs to the people of Chatsworth. A history of the United Methodist Church in Chatsworth and the building of the church may be found here.

Building Saved

The building was saved, moved, and restored through the efforts of the Chatsworth Historical Society. The Oakwood Memorial Park Association allowed the building to be moved to the northwest corner of the cemetery and since November 15, 1981, the building has been occupied by the congregation of St. Mary the Virgin Anglican-Rite Catholic Church. On February 22, 1984, the Don Jose de Ortega Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution presented a bronze plaque to the church marking the building’s place in California history. They also presented an American Flag and a California Flag which rest on standards in the nave.

In 1982, The Right Reverend James Orin Mote, Bishop of the Los Angeles Diocese, consecrated the building for the Anglican-Rite Catholic Church.

The church history which follows was written by Virginia Watson, a local writer and historian who is also Curator of the Chatsworth Museum for the Chatsworth Historical Society.

The Beginning

The people who formed the congregation and later built the church were typical of American pioneers who carried with them their beliefs and traditions. As soon as they were established in their new homes, their thoughts turned to the church.

First they met for services in each other’s homes. When the weather permitted, they gathered outdoors under the trees and sang their hymns. They were simple services led by a member of the group. Ann Willden Johnson conducted a service in her home in the 1880’s which she called a Union Sunday School class. After a school house was built, The Reverend Willets, a Baptist Circuit rider, held services there.

The First Minister

In 1888, the town of Chatsworth Park received its name. The Methodist Episcopal Conference established the formal congregation, the second oldest in the San Fernando Valley. The Reverend J. C. Elliott was the first appointed minister. Although the church was called the Methodist Episcopal Church and fell under the jurisdiction of the Methodist Conference, it remained a community church.

On November 28, 1898, a young people’s social group was founded. The framed charter which hung in the Pioneer Church is now a part of the Chatsworth Historical Society’s collection.

Nelson A. Gray, a major land holder and prominent figure in the community, donated the land for the church. The church was built at what is now 10051 Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

The church was built in the Victorian style of New England architecture, as were many of the churches built during the late 1800’s.

The Church That People Built

The church was built with volunteer labor. Each person donated his or her time doing what each did best. The names of the people who had donated money or time were recorded in the cornerstone. The men who built the Southern Pacific Tunnels above Chatsworth Park North helped. The Ladies’ Aid Society gave rummage sales, bake sales, church suppers, and sponsored many other activities to raise money for the church.

Many different pastors served the little church, most of them student pastors in training.

In 1904, the Pioneer Church was the only church in the northwest valley, and it was a hub of activity.

During this time, it served the people of the area in many different ways. Weddings, funerals, christenings, church suppers, recitals, social events, community meetings, and even Chamber of Commerce meetings were held there. In 1904, high school classes were held in the church.

The 1900’s

During World War I, many of the young men were away, but the church continued as the hub of cultural, social, and religious life of the community.

In the 1920’s, White Oak Hall was added to the building for social gatherings.

Throughout the Thirties, the congregation suffered through the Great Depression along with the rest of America. The Ladies’ Aid Society participated in the local soup kitchens.

The 1940’s

During the Forties, the little church served as disaster headquarters. In times of flood and fire, people were housed in the building.

During the war, soldiers from the nearby anti-aircraft stations attended church services. A Memorial Chapel was added to the church to honor service men and women lost during the war.

After the war, the San Fernando Valley was booming. The community grew, and other churches were established in the growing community. In 1959, the name of the church was changed to the Chatsworth Methodist Church.

The Church Abandoned

The community’s growth encouraged the congregation to build a bigger church. When the congregation moved into the new modern church, the little church was silent for the first time since it had been built.

The traffic on Topanga Canyon Boulevard heedlessly and impersonally rushed past the little church that had served the community so well.

The new owner of the property had plans to build a shopping center on the site. He planned to demolish the church. Local residents, many of them members of the congregation, were saddened by the prospect of losing the church.

A Historical Monument

In April 1963, the Chatsworth Historical Society was formed for the specific purpose of making the church a historical monument. The first meeting took place at the home of Katherine and Kelly Johnson. After the newly formed Cultural Heritage Board of Los Angeles named the church a historical monument (#14), the work of the Historical Society began. Finally, after setting aside his initial request of five hundred dollars, Mr. Spinks, the owner of the property, donated the church to the Chatsworth Historical Society with the provision that it be moved off the property within 30 days. The Oakwood Memorial Park Association came to the rescue with an offer of land. Then came the problem of how to move the building and where to get the money.

The Famous Lend A Hand

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, who had attended the church and who had been patrons of the Chatsworth Historical Society since its beginnings, gave the first one thousand dollars toward moving the church. The Simpson Moving Company agreed to move the building for the cost of the men’s wages. After a number of rummage sales, book sales, more donations, work permits, and documentation, the church was on its way.

In January 1965, as television cameras ground away, the 60-year-old building creaked and groaned out onto Devonshire and turned toward Oakwood Memorial Park. The big oak trees on Lassen and the small gates of Oakwood Memorial Park prevented the church from being moved that way. It took three days to move the church across the fields. The Pacific Telephone Company and the Department of Water and Power helped by cutting and splicing the wires after the church passed.
Bill and Frank Schepler, Jr. of the Chatsworth Historical Society took down fences and put them back again. After the church arrived on the rocky knoll, it took several days to get settled. Because they were dissatisfied with the way it looked, the Oakwood Memorial Park Association paid to have the building turned around.

There was more to come. All sorts of permits had to be requested; money had to be raised for insurance; reports had to be made to the Cultural Heritage Society; a bond had to be posted; and a new roof had to be put on to meet the fire laws.

More Problems

In October 1967, a brush fire in the hills came up to the rocky edge of the cemetery, and flames licked at the steps of the building. Firemen fought their way through the smoke to save the already ignited building. Only slight damage was recorded.

The problem of money to repair the smoke and fire damage was solved when a movie company paid $100 to rent the building to make a battle scene with the charred building in the background.

A foundation and plumbing were the next obstacles. But another setback occurred. One Sunday afternoon, several local boys were discovered in the church. For several weeks, they had systematically destroyed the church’s windows and light fixtures.

The problem seemed insurmountable, but finally the insurance money from the parents of the boys involved came through. Work continued, and the society rallied around the project again. Finally, the completion stone was put in place.

Vandalism

Vandalism continued to be a problem. Strange people were caught in the church. During the height of the hippie movement, strange rituals went on at the church site. One such incident resulted in a deliberate attempt to burn down the church. This incident started a “Light Up the Memorial” fund, and a patrol system was hired. The Los Angeles Police Department helicopter began to watch out for the church.

Work progressed slowly. In 1976, the rededication ceremonies took place. Dale Evans Rogers came back to attend the ceremony. After the ceremony, the church was boarded up again. Tours of the building were given, and occasionally the Chatsworth Historical Society had a function there. But the building still had no electricity or water. Frustrated society members turned their attention and efforts toward other projects such as Minnie Hall Palmer Homestead and the founding of the Chatsworth Museum. A few weddings were held at the church, but that was all.

A New Lease on Life

In November of 1981, the congregation of St. Mary the Virgin, a Traditional Episcopal Church led by The Reverend Dr. L. Noel Stipkovich was permitted to lease the property. Since that time, the congregation of St. Mary the Virgin Anglican-Rite Catholic Church has occupied the building.

Rectors Named

The Reverend Russell Fry became the second rector of the small congregation, and he stayed until 1988. The Reverend Anthony Rasch became the rector in 1989 and is continuing in that capacity to the present time.

Improvements Made

Many improvements have been made in the building. A new roof was constructed jointly by the Oakwood Memorial Park Association and the congregation of St. Mary’s. The building was recently painted and new shutters were put in place by Tom Horton as an Eagle Scout project. The floors were refinished earlier by Brian Hayes, also an Eagle Scout project.

The original light fixtures have been replaced, carpeting and ceiling fans added, the pews refinished and a few added, and many other beautification projects completed.

The Window

The last stained glass window was placed and dedicated at the 90th Birthday Celebration. The title of the window is St. Mary the Virgin and the Holy Infant, created and placed by B. J. and Lee Smitley as a memorial to their late infant son, William Fields Smitley, and put in place by John Thorpe and Robert R. Jones.

The Bell

The original bell that hung in the steeple was ordered from Philadelphia by N. A. Gray, who donated the land upon which to build the church in 1903. The Methodist Church kept the bell when they moved out and built an arch on the grounds to house it. However, it was stolen and never recovered. A carillon replaced the sound of the bell until 1993 when, nearing the 90th Birthday Celebration, Robert R. Jones, a member of St. Mary’s congregation, found a new bell, bought it, thoroughly researched how to hang it, and placed it in the tower in memory of his mother, Marcella Lyda Dixon, and his maternal grandparents, Marcella Irene and Harry Henry Dixon, and his paternal grandparents, Caroline and William Jefferson Jones.

Window and Bell Dedicated

The new window and bell were dedicated at the 90th Birthday Celebration on Sunday, October 24, 1993.

Local dignitaries, celebrities, parishioners of St. Mary’s, Chatsworth parishioners of St. Mary’s, Chatsworth Historical Society members, and the people of the community gathered to remember the events that shaped the history of the little church building, to look over how the area has changed, and to look to the future of the little Pioneer Church on its second time around.

Original Window Restored

The vandalism of earlier years had destroyed all but one of the original stained glass windows of the church. The new stained glass windows were a testament to the perseverance of the congregation and the efforts of the Chatsworth Historical Society. The remnants of the remaining window were collected by Ms. Lori Mitchell and painstakingly restored. Her mother, Ms. Dianne Howard, contributed the replacement center piece. The restored window was rededicated on Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 1999, and now proudly hangs in the parish hall, demonstrating that the little church proudly holds to its past even as it grows into the future.

A Proud Centennial

The Pioneer Church celebrated its centennial on October 23, 2003. After a hundred years of service to the community, the church continues as a monument to the efforts and faith of its builders and to those generations who have followed.

There is an open house of this historic building on the 1st Sunday of each month from 1–4 pm sponsored by the Chatsworth Historical Society.


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