Laguna's Little Brown Church marks a big anniversary

The Little Brown Church has grown up.

Laguna Presbyterian Church, with its majestic sanctuary adorned with stained-glass windows and familiar chimes, will celebrateits 100th anniversary this year.

While the name and structures have changed throughout the years, one thing remains constant: a congregation dedicated to following Christ, studying Scripture and "reaching beyond ourselves to those who are in need whether it's spiritual, physical, relational," said Rev. Jerry Tankersley, elected senior pastor in 1972.

These roots were planted before the turn of the 20th century, when the church, then called Community Presbyterian Church of Laguna Beach, was in its infancy.

In the 1890s, Sylvanus Ferris and his wife, Sabra, held an adult Sunday school for vacationers on the porch of their beachfront cottage, according to the church website. As the group expanded, congregants gathered in the former Village Meeting Hall, which housed an art gallery and community theater.

In 1914, with more visitors discovering Laguna Beach, the congregation sought help from the Rev. Paul Stevens, a Presbyterian missionary who oversaw the construction of Laguna Chapel, known as "The Little Brown Church."

The one-story building, which sat on property of the current sanctuary at 415 Forest Ave., was built on two lots that cost $250 each, according to the church website.

Under the leadership of the Rev. A.W. Prewitt, Community Presbyterian Church of Laguna Beach was formally organized in 1917 with 15 charter members.

Among them was Anna Hills, an impressionist painter who helped found The Art Assn., forerunner to the Laguna Art Museum. With her sister Nellie Ford Hills, she oversaw the church's Sunday school and women's missionary society.

In 1925, church leadership appointed the Rev. Raymond Brahams to its top post with the goal of building a new sanctuary to seat everyone who lived in Laguna at the time.

Brahams suggested the Spanish colonial architecture and oversaw the design. The new church, built for $26,500, was dedicated on March 18, 1928.

In 1949, under the new leadership of Dallas Turner, a south wing, dedicated to Christian education, was added. It housed a summer vacation Bible school attended by thousands of Laguna children.

A roller-skating program attracted 100 children every week. Jim Hind, a longtime congregant, skated on the large cement playground.

"You have to realize," Hind said on the website, "that we were a very isolated community then. We had the beach, Saturday morning movies and roller-skating."

In a follow-up interview Hind, 75, who grew up in this church, said, "It's always been the center of my family's life, the center of my life."

 

Name Change

In the last 60 years the church added a preschool, expanded outreach to the community and, in 1983, changed its name from Community Presbyterian Church of Laguna Beach to Laguna Presbyterian Church.

Church leaders voted for the name change because they recognized the parish's influence extended beyond Laguna.

Laguna Presbyterian has become an outreach hub of the community in times of need, such as the aftermath of the 1993 Laguna fire. For days after the blaze that destroyed more than 400 homes, the church coordinated housing referrals, offered counseling and served as a drop-off point for clothes and other items.

"That was a transformative moment for the city," Tankersley said. "Together we were able to respond, which shows a church that is spiritually healthy."

In 2008 and 2009, the congregation met in the fellowship hall as crews restored the church to ensure the long-term stability of the sanctuary, bring it up to seismic standards and preserve historical elements, such as the Judson and Ferris stained-glass windows, pillars, arches and tower.

The project included replacing the roof and foundation, upgrading the sound system, lighting, air circulation and reconfiguring pews to improve sightlines.

Workers removed and cleaned every piece of stained glass before returning them into place.

 

History of giving

The church contributes financially to several Laguna nonprofits, such as the La Playa Center, Friendship Shelter and Laguna Food Pantry.

Volunteers serve meals at the Alternative Sleeping Location, ashelter, donate Christmas gifts and provide food to the Laguna Food Pantry.

Every year at hospitality night, hundreds of volunteers inside the church's kitchen cook tamales for people celebrating the arrival of the holiday season.

"It flows out of who God is and what the mission of God is," said Tankersley, part of the current pastoral staff that includes the Revs. Steve Sweet and Kathy Sizer.

Lorna Cohen has been a member for 20 years. She first heard about Laguna Presbyterian in 1993 while walking with friend Peg Donner.

"She kept mentioning the Lord," said Cohen, who had been raised Methodist.

Cohen had no interest in joining the church, but Donner invited her to a women's retreat.

"I had not been around such a sweet, loving community," Cohen said. "There was a gentle sweetness."

And she joined.

"My faith became the center of my life," she said.

The church will be marking the anniversary with events throughout the year, including a September dinner at the Hotel Laguna.

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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