Presbyterian roots in this country go back to the founding fathers, with many signers of the Constitution of the United States claiming Presbyterian heritage.
Since free and open inquiry is foundational to Presbyterianism, Laguna Presbyterian Church has encouraged conversations on every topic that impacts society through its morning and evening Adult Education classes to hosting events such as Laguna on the Same Page which has featured the author of “The Tortilla Curtain” and Father Boyle of Homeboy Industries. While not shying away from potentially divisive topics, Laguna Presbyterian has another tradition of not letting differences of opinion on hot-button issues separate the fellowship of the church. Senior Pastor Jerry Tankersley is nationally regarded as a peacemaker and reconciler, and under his leadership the church has weathered the storms of contemporary life and grown.
The Seeds of Laguna Presbyterian Church-1890s
The seeds of Laguna Presbyterian Church were sown in the 1890s by one of three men who brought a navel orange tree to Riverside, which started the region’s citrus industry. Sylvanus Ferris and his wife Sabra held an adult Sunday school for vacationers on the porch of their beachfront cottage. As the group expanded, they gathered in the former Village Meeting Hall, which housed an art gallery and community theater.
In 1914, with more visitors discovering Laguna Beach, the small congregation sought help from the Rev. Paul Stevens, a missionary of the Presbyterian Church, who, with the support of the townspeople, oversaw the construction of Laguna Chapel, which would become known as The Little Brown Church.
Built downtown on two Second Street lots costing $250 each, it was dedicated on Aug. 29, 1915.
Not long after, the congregation called the Rev. A. W. Prewitt as its first pastor. Under his leadership, Community Presbyterian Church of Laguna Beach was formally organized in 1917 with 15 charter members, among them Anna Hills, according to church minutes of March 25, 1918.
The marriage of faith, arts and culture was personified by Miss Hills, an artist who also helped found The Art Association, the forerunner of the Laguna Art Museum. She and her sister, Nellie Ford Hills, oversaw the burgeoning children’s Sunday school and the Women’s Missionary Society. Frank Cuprien, another well-known artist of the plein air school, was in charge of music.
Prewitt’s successor at the pulpit was Franklin B. Josslyn, whose pastoral duties from 1919 to 1920 included organizing a congregation in San Juan Capistrano. He would make a “mad dash” after services in Laguna, “driving the narrow, winding roads to San Juan with one hand on the wheel and the other on his horn.”
More vacationers brought commercial pressures to Laguna Beach. Miss Hills, in a July 21, 1921 letter to the editor of the now defunct Laguna Life newspaper, wrote “above all else we must hold clearly before our minds our ideal for the mental and spiritual development of the village life. We do not want commercialism to become the dominant idea—let industry and finance find other fields of activity and let this be a place of beauty dedicated to the fostering of the various arts, painting, literature and music. Let us keep it a place where tired humanity can come and find rest and refreshments for the body, mind and spirit. So we will keep a Laguna that is different, and people who care for the best things the world over will seek us out.”
A Vision for A Church at the Heart of Life in Laguna
Plein-air painter George K. Brandriff, a Hills student, captured in oils “The New Church,” still in its scaffolding, dwarfing nearby beach cottages. Stained-glass windows, dedicated to the memory of Sylvanus and Sabra Ferris, faced Second Street. In 1937, stained-glass rose windows from the famed Judson Studios in Highland Park were added to the transepts.
In 1925, Raymond I. Brahams, a “great builder of character and churches,” was installed as pastor. Just three years later and before the Depression, he saw his dream realized, building the sanctuary as it exists today for $26,500. He proposed the Spanish Colonial architecture and oversaw the design process.
Meanwhile, the Little Brown Church building was given to an Assembly of God church in Garden Grove, where it enjoyed a second life with a new steeple.
Pastor Brahams, ever the visionary, in 1944 called a meeting to address the shortage of hospital beds in Orange County. He had witnessed too many lives lost to car accidents along the fog-shrouded coastal highway. The group of seven Presbyterians and a Laguna physician had every intention of seeing a hospital built in Laguna Beach. Eventually, though, a bluff-top in Newport Beach was selected for Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian. More than a decade later, congregants would support a campaign for Laguna’s own hospital, South Coast Medical Center, which opened in 1959.
In 1949, under the new leadership of Dallas R. Turner, a south wing was added to the campus, dedicated to Christian education. It housed a summer vacation Bible school, attended by thousands of Laguna children since then. It was during these years that a roller-skating program attracted 100 children every Wednesday. Jim Hind, a long-time congregant, remembers skating on the large cement playground. “You have to realize,” he commented, “that we were a very isolated community then. We had the beach, Saturday morning movies and roller-skating.”
His uncle and aunt, Russ and Esther Hind, who owned a jewelry store, offered lapidary classes at the church. Kids loved to polish a special stone for a necklace or belt buckle, “taking God’s handiwork and showing it in all its beauty,” as Esther said, in a 1955 South Coast News article.
The Schulmerich carillon bells were dedicated in 1955 and have faithfully chimed the hours from nine in the morning to seven in the evening. In 1960 a rare M.P. Moller pipe organ was installed, enhancing music in the sanctuary.
Also in 1960, outreach expanded with the formation of Community Presbyterian Preschool, the community’s oldest. Many second-generation students are now enrolled, and a few years ago a third-generation child passed through its doors. In 1968 Turner Hall was completed and dedicated, opening up more classrooms.
On Sept. 5, 1972, Arthur Jerry Tankersley was called to Community Presbyterian. Recognizing that the parish area extended beyond the city’s borders to neighboring Lagunas, in 1983 the church voted to change its name to Laguna Presbyterian Church.
As an outgrowth of Tankersley’s Bible teaching, the congregation has given aid and volunteer time to worldwide and local community groups, including the oldest Orange County Boy Scout sponsorship, and emergencies such as the 1993 Laguna fire.
Following that disastrous fire and a 1998 flood, and acting on the vision of congregant Ed Sauls and others, the Interfaith Council, representing all the churches in Laguna, pressed for a single agency to coordinate community relief. The resulting merger of the Interfaith Council and the Laguna Fire Coalition gave birth to the Laguna Resource Center, which continues to offer aid to those in need.
ABOUT THE RENOVATION OF OUR HISTORIC SANCTUARY
In the early summer of 2007 the congregation moved out of the seismically-unfit sanctuary to worship in the adjacent Fellowship Hall in preparation for the sanctuary’s restoration.
The restoration and renovation of 2008-9 grew out of the mandates of the ReVisioning Task Force of 2001, the Worship Task Force of the same year and the Sanctuary Revitalization program, part of the first phase of the Open Door capital campaign, launched in 2004.
The following vision and priorities emerged during the years of prayerful discernment and discovery that followed these initiatives:
• To preserve and protect our historic sanctuary building for ages to come for the sake of God’s mission in the world;
• To embrace and enhance the richness and beauty of its historic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture by strengthening and unifying its elements into a single architectural style while retaining and restoring historic architectural elements such as the Judson and Ferris stained-glass windows, the pillars, arches, tower and all of the major architectural sub-structure elements;
• To connect the gathered community of worshipers to the liturgical actions occurring in the chancel by extending the chancel into the nave, with seating radiating out in concentric circles from this central point, thus improving visibility, audibility and seating capacity;
• To highlight the visual symbols of our Reformed faith: Cross, Word, Table and Font;
• To bring people into a sense of reverence before God through improved sound, lighting, air circulation and restoration of our pipe organ;
• To make the sanctuary warmer, more inviting and welcoming through the expansion and refurbishment of the entrances and through providing greater accessibility to every part of the building with code upgrades;
• To reach out to new generation of believers through the addition of acoustical and audio/visual capability.
The above priorities stem from the vision and values of Laguna Presbyterian Church reflected in our Mission Statement: “In response to God’s love, we are called to be a Christ-centered community where people can: Discover who God is and the depth of Christ’s love; develop individual spiritual gifts and be equipped for ministry; demonstrate love and hope in Christ to Laguna and beyond – in this way we glorify God.”
Compiled by the Church’s Legacy Committee
Portions of this history appeared in the Laguna Beach Independent on November 30, 2007