Mission, Vision, Values
The third parish established in the new Episcopal Diocese of California, St. John’s began in 1857 as a pioneer outpost in rented space at the edge of swamps and sand dunes. It quickly grew into a thriving “society parish” of sorts, helping to found schools, hospitals, and chapels in the rapidly growing Mission District. But in the wake of the economic and demographic changes in the Mission that followed the 1906 earthquake, St. John’s changed, too.
An early St. John’s leader wrote in 1887 that, “While the church has never been the religious home of a rich or fashionable congregation, it has always been the chosen field for a small but growing band of quiet, earnest and practical Christian workers.” That characterization might also fit St. John’s members today. While for most of its history, the parish has struggled to sustain membership and meet its budget, its members have continued to play leadership roles in the surrounding neighborhood and beyond, through professional and volunteer service to local and global educational, human rights, and social service organizations, and the Episcopal Church. Although on the small side, with around 90 members, average Sunday attendance of 72, and recent Easter-Christmas attendance around 100, St. John’s maintains a solid presence in the neighborhood and in the Episcopal Church. It boasts among the highest average per person annual pledge in the Diocese of California, and for years has been known for sponsoring a disproportionately large number of candidates for ordination.
St. John’s Early Days, 1857-1906
A daily stage ran between the “City” and the “Mission” over a planked road, now Mission
The church struggled financially in its early years (as it would it in years to come). A colorful story relates how one Sunday, when the doors of the building rented for church services were locked due to lack of rent payment, and the “vestrymen” went off to negotiate with the landlord, the legendary Mrs. Green climbed through a window and let the St. John’s worshipers and Sunday school children in from the rain. The vestrymen returned to find the church doors open and the Sunday school in active operation under Mrs. Green’s charge. She could hardly have known that the pluck she displayed on that soggy day was the first recorded example of something known as “the spirit of St. John's.”
One cannot think of the past history of St. John’s without associating with it the old acid words, of which the remains are still visible. They were to the windward of the church and the suffocating fumes and disagreeable odor therefrom were very distressing during divine service, catching the breath of the members of the congregation, many of whom were greatly distressed by the noxious gases evolved, which caused them to incessantly cough while worshipping. Expostulations against running the works during Sunday were in vain and it was not until 1880 or 1881 that the indignation of the residents of the Mission reached such a pitch that the Board of Supervisors declared the works a nuisance, and the plant and machinery were taken across the bay.
Criticism mounted nearly as high as the debt. “Great freedom has been taken by the architect,” noted a national architectural journal in reference to the exuberant, Byzantine style; the building had “a beauty all its own,” said The Pacific Churchman. Soon St. John’s earned the nickname “St. Rufus” (or variously, “St. Roofus”) for its predominate architectural feature, and was regarded in some corners as a flamboyant example of Gilded Age excess. Many parishioners, apparently aghast at the design and the final bill, began to drift away. The parish, which was already supporting numerous charitable enterprises, plunged into debt. Dr. Spalding suffered a breakdown in 1900 and was replaced by the Rev. Louis Sanford. For the next six years Sanford worked to restore parish morale and finances.
One form of historic evidence comes from written accounts. The diocesan newsletter, then called The Pacific Churchman, offered a detailed report of affected parishes in its June, 1906 issue. The anonymous author of the St. John's entry provided a surprisingly detailed account of church activities following the earthquake, including an hour-by-hour report of events on the morning of Thursday the 19th. The close familiarity with movements of the ministers suggest that it was a church staff member who wrote the account. Any agreement to destroy the building purposefully would have included consultation with the staff, and yet the Pacific Churchman article makes no mention of explosives beyond a statement that their use had been suggested at one point. The account also mentions an eyewitness report that the church roof was on fire at 2 p.m. that day. The timing is consistent with fire chief reports that the conflagration destroyed the North Mission area that afternoon. If St. John's had been brought down in advance, the roof would not have been intact by the time the fire reached it. Finally, no original documents have been found that mention use of explosives on 15th or Julian Streets.
The second type of evidence is photographic. Many photos were taken of the church soon after the fire, and from many angles. The exterior masonry walls remain while the roof, glass, and all wooden elements are gone. Smoke stains emanating from window holes indicate clearly that the fire crossed the property. It would have been difficult to bring down the building without blasting some parts of the exterior, and yet photographs show that the exterior walls were intact after the fire.
There are still two ways in which explosives could have played a role. Eyewitnesses, including chiefs of several fire stations, noted how the inept use of dynamite, gunpowder, and other explosives often served to spread the fire. There are individual accounts that buildings on Mission Street within one to three blocks of St. John's were brought down for use as firebreaks. The resulting plumes of embers could have spread the fire to St. John's. Second, explosives were often used to bring down the masonry walls left intact by the fire. The walls of St. John's and other edifices needed to be removed quickly to allow rebuilding and to avoid the danger of a sudden collapse. While no direct evidence has been uncovered that St. John's was dynamited for this purpose, in all likelihood explosives were employed due to the sturdiness and size of the walls left standing. Thus it may well be true that “St. John's was dynamited after the earthquake,” but to prepare for rebuilding rather than to serve as a firebreak.
In any event, in late April 1906, St. John’s lay in ruins, like much of the rest of San Francisco. For the next four years, Sunday services were held in a shack on the church grounds amidst the rubble, some of which can still be seen in St. John’s basement.
Both the third church building and parish itself would be on a more modest scale than “St. Roofus.” After the great earthquake, many parishioners were left homeless or destitute, and others moved away. Over time, the north Mission, no longer a popular residential neighborhood, sank into decline, best known for warehouses and flophouses, with something of a skid-row feel. A hulking armory was built just down the block.
Even so, as the 1931 Pacific Churchman noted, “for many years St. John’s has been confronted with difficulties by virtue of a changing neighborhood population.” But a new rector turned that around to some degree, and in the early 1930s the parish attracted about 90 worshipers total on Sundays, recording 300 for Easter 1932. From 1934 until the early 1940s. St. John’s attendance again declined to around 40, and money was scarce. The parish made do with lay readers and no rector. Keeping the red doors on Julian Street open during the Depression and war years was no mean feat. Building repairs were neglected, and the maintenance contract for the organ was voided. The Great Depression and World War II continued to change the neighborhood, but the church was never closed.
With the coming of a new rector, the Rev. John Furlong, in 1947, a period of growth and renewed activity followed, with attendance back up to around 90 and 330 for Easter. These numbers held strong through the 1950s, with the Rev. Vern Swartzfarger having a particularly good impact through his “St. John’s Kids World,” a weekly Sunday evening happening where 150 local children “worship and play together, regardless of race, color, and creed.”
St. John’s Revival
In 1968, with only 11 members, St. John’s lost official parish status. Bishop Kilmer Myers promised that the church would not be closed if the people proved themselves committed to and capable of doing useful service in the community.
St. John’s became part of the Diocesan Department of Urban and New Ministries, and in
In 1971, Rev. Ching convened a group of members and other concerned people to form
Even the destruction of the parish hall and rectory by an arsonist’s fire in 1974 could not reverse the new momentum and enthusiasm. The charred remains were turned into a garden. The next rector, the Rev. James Brown, continued to reach out to the gay community, and built a reputation of St. John’s as a place of refuge and prayer for LGBT people and their friends and families.
By 1976, parish membership had grown to 110, and by 1977, St. John’s was readmitted to parish status in the Diocese. The clergy and laity of St. John’s also became increasingly prominent in the leadership of both church and socio-political organizations and projects during the 1970s and early 1980s.
But as the church continued to expand its spiritual and social endeavors, it faced a new, unprecedented challenge: the emerging AIDS crisis. A large number of parish members and friends were felled by HIV and AIDS. During the early years of the epidemic, under the leadership of the Rev. John “Jack” Eastwood, St. John’s provided a spiritual home as well as physical care and a sense of family to scores of gay men, many of whom had been disowned by their own families and churches. Funerals were held on average once a month through the mid-1980s, and the cremains of many of those men who found a home at the corner of Julian and 15th are buried in the church’s peaceful garden.
In a letter to mark St. John’s 130th anniversary in 1987, then Bishop William Swing delivered a powerful tribute. “I know of no other congregation through the years that has been plagued by such an unending list of calamities. Yet this congregation has proven to be tough in the very best sense of that word. Tough when nature has gone awry. Tough when epidemics have brought a scourge. Tough in the midst of serving the community. Tough like Jesus Christ in his passion.”
By 1994, when the Rev. David Norgard arrived as rector, the church was again facing crisis. Membership had fallen to 40, and the 84-year-old building was in terrible physical shape, with a leaking roof and unsound floors and walls. But under Rev. Norgard the parish grew again and pulled together for its “Standing Strong” campaign, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore St. John’s, which was rededicated in 1999. The Rev. Duane Sisson served as interim rector in 1999 and 2000 following the departure of David Norgard. He was deeply admired, and many parishioners wished for him to stay. The interim rector contract prevented it, however, and soon he moved on. A second interim rector, Rick Adamson, served for a shorter time in late 2000 and early 2001.
A new rector was called in 2002 but his tenure proved to be short due to disagreements about the parish's mission and strategies for congregational development. In the wake if this departure, there was much grief and disappointment about the dissolution of the pastoral relationship.
The next 18 months were devoted largely to recovering from this painful episode. Priest Associate Richard Smith preached regularly for several months, followed by the interim rectorship of the Rev. Canon David Forbes, who continues to serve as a priest associate at St. John’s. Through personal warmth and carefully wrought sermons, they guided the parish toward reconciliation and recovery. The Rev. Forbes had agreed to a four-month term but generously stayed on for five more as the parish searched for a new rector.
A signal of St. John’s recovery has been a renewed interest in missions. Church members continue to volunteer time and money to Mission Graduates (formerly St. John's Educational Thresholds Center) and Martin de Porres House of Hospitality, both of which serve low-income residents of the Mission and other neighborhoods. Parishioner Bonita Palmer, a staff physician at St. Luke's Hospital, has become a major figure in the public effort to preserve inpatient care at the facility.
A new mission was born in 2002: a Thursday evening dinner known as the Warm Spot. Parishioner Michael Music prepared a wholesome meal, nearly always featuring a soup from his vast repertoire, while the Rev. Edward Wright welcomed guests and led the opening prayer. The original focus was to build the parish community during a time of dissension. Later the emphasis changed to serving the neighborhood, and the dinners were opened to all comers. Attendance eventually averaged more than 50 diners who came for food, fellowship, and healing prayer. Save for a short hiatus they continued for more than three years. As Wright has noted, the Warm Spot provided a rare opportunity for St. John's members to meet and learn about our neighbors.
The parish has felt an increasing call to international missions. El Porvenir, a nonprofit that sustains water-related development projects in Nicaragua, was founded in 1990 by St. John's members, former members, and friends. The parish contributes a modest amount annually, and in 2007 a group of eight parishioners visited project sites. An exciting new mission is the support of the Anglican Diocese of El Salvador, begun in 2006. Its bishop lost support from conservative American congregations when he attended the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. St. John's, in alliance with other San Francisco parishes, is helping to fill the gap. The newest area of international mission is the support of gay and lesbian Anglicans in countries where they face persecution. The Rev. Tracy Longacre, a deacon and former member of St. John's, has performed field work in Uganda and Cameroon for this purpose since 2005. In 2007 the parish hosted Davis MacIyalla, a gay Anglican leader from Nigeria, and a few months later rector John Kirkely traveled to Uganda to meet with gay Anglicans who are pressing for greater acceptance.
The international missions have brought a fresh sense of excitement and purpose. There is a palpable feeling that the Spirit is leading us and that new opportunities await. As the tiny mustard seed can become a tree, so St. John's seeks to be mighty in effect despite its modest size.
SoMa Area Ministry and Welcoming El Buen Samaritano
Our first project together, supporting the Anglican Church in El Salvador, predated the organization of the area ministry partnership and showed us the beginning of a path together. In June 2008, St. John’s and Holy Innocents, with seed support and guidance from St. Gregory’s, started the Julian Pantry/Bodega de Julian, which provides groceries to neighbors on Saturday mornings. El Buen Samaritano, the Latino/Spanish-language Episcopal congregration of the Mission District, soon joined us in supporting the pantry -- and in conversation about joining us at St. John’s.
In early 2010, we decided as a parish that, despite our vitality of spirit and service, like many churches, we are lacking in financial resources and could no longer afford a full-time clergy person. This lead to a reduction in our budget to half-time clergy position as of July. On July 4, with grateful, but sad hearts, we celebrated the ministry of our rector, the Rev. John Kirkley, who resigned to pursue full-time employment elsewhere. We are currently in conversation with the Diocese about how best to fill St. John's needs, but very well supported in the meantime by the abundant gifts of our associated clergy and lay leaders.
Photos: B. Pethoud, K. Leibenath.