Survival of a Landmark : Determined Congregants Raising Money to Save Welsh Church

Every Sunday morning, Janet and Thayer Masoner drive from their home in Woodland Hills to their church on 12th and Valencia streets in downtown Los Angeles. Theirs is not just any church, but what is believed to be the last Welsh church in California. And it's in trouble.

The Welsh Presbyterian Church, declared a historical monument in 1977 for its Greek Revival architecture, does not meet Los Angeles city standards for earthquake safety. Repairs, which will cost an estimated $100,000, must be completed by October, 1988, or the church could be demolished.

The Masoners, who head the church's survival fund, believe that demolition of the landmark would be a cultural and historical loss, not only to the Welsh of Los Angeles but to the Jewish community as well.

Stephen Sass of the Southern California Jewish Historical Society agrees. The building was originally a synagogue, built in 1909 by Sinai Temple as the first Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. It was sold to the Welsh congregation 17 years later.

Building Respected, Enhanced

According to Sass, it is the oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles. "Not only has the congregation respected it," he said, "but they have enhanced it."

With few exceptions, the Jewish symbols in the building remain intact. Large Stars of David are visible in the church's stained-glass windows, including one on the ceiling. The Welsh names of Gwilym and Mary Jones and Hannah Edwards have been placed over the center of the Stars of David in the windows, in memory of loved ones.

Wire holders for derbies the men wore to the synagogue are still found beneath the wooden seats. Even the Murray M. Harris pipe organ, also built in 1909, has been maintained and is played each Sunday. It is one of fewer than a dozen remaining in the United States.

Donations to repair the church have trickled in from the congregation's 151 members, but most are elderly people living on fixed incomes. They have given what little energy and financial support they can.

Helped to Raise $54,000

Enter the Masoners. In the six months since the fund-raising drive to save the church began, the Masoners have helped raise more than half of the money needed--$54,000.

"I don't think I could live with myself if I didn't make every effort to save it," said Janet Watkins Masoner, 52, regional editor of the North American Welsh newspaper, Ninnau.

"This is the last bastion of Welshness in California. Most of the congregation, about 60 to 70%, were born in Wales. With my red hair and Welsh determination, I'd handcuff myself to the roof and swallow the key before I'd let them demolish our church."

Like the Masoners, who live 30 miles from the church, many members drive long distances to worship. One family travels from San Clemente, another from Lake Hughes.

"They come for the warmth and spirit of the Welsh people and the charm of the church," Thayer Masoner said. "There is an enthusiasm that the Welsh convey and a love of life. There is a joyousness in the spirit with their love of music and ability to express themselves in the face of hardships. We refer to the church as a gem of tranquility in the midst of modern skyscrapers."

'Welsh Emphasis Sunday'

The last Sunday of the month is dubbed "Welsh Emphasis Sunday." The Lord's prayer is recited in Welsh and the hymns are sung in the language. Afterward, there's a tae bach, meaning small tea, with tiny sandwiches, Welsh cake, English tea biscuits and shortbread.

The Welsh congregation has been in downtown Los Angeles for almost 100 years. It began in 1888 with a Sunday school class held in the hall of a small store. From there it moved to a church it built on Crocker Street. But the congregation outgrew the church when membership peaked at about 300. In 1926, it moved into the Sinai Temple building.

The Masoners have relied on resourcefulness to raise the funds. "We really had no guidance," Janet Masoner said. "We just started by doing it. I've had some weeks where I rarely got anything else done."

According to her husband, Janet is the "creative strategist" of the family. She began the fund-raising drive with a personal touch that has become her trademark. She sent individually typed letters to 30 of the longstanding members of the church. "Essentially, I said 'step forward, stand up and be counted.' "

"My real pen pal is a widower over in Long Beach who lost his Welsh wife a few months ago and had cut himself off from life. One day he was carrying out the trash and saw the word Welsh in an article about the church.

"He retrieved it from the trash, read it and sent us $500. I sent him a letter back and said, 'We want you to come to church.' He said, 'When I'm emotionally ready, I'll come.' "

They have corresponded ever since.

Janet Masoner also wrote to Sinai Temple, now located in West Los Angeles, in the effort to raise funds. Because the building is also a Jewish landmark, she appealed to the synagogue for assistance.

According to Milo Mandel, president of Sinai Temple, the appeal is being considered.

Sass said he believes that Sinai Temple and the Jewish community owe a debt of gratitude to the Welsh congregation.

"They have preserved the building so lovingly all these many years. They are asking us to join as partners and I think it's a wonderful opportunity. Even though, physically, the Jewish community no longer worships there, in a sense, spiritual ownership is something distinct from the title to the building. That tie is still there that binds the two peoples. All they need is a little bit of help."

More than a little bit of help has come from the Welsh community and friends of the church. In August, the Rhos Male Voice Choir from the North Wales village of Rhosllanerchrugog made a detour to Los Angeles on its way to performing at the national Gamanfi Ganu--festival of Welsh hymns--in Columbus, Ohio.

They performed at a sellout benefit in Los Angeles and raised about $4,000. Members of the Welsh church and other Presbyterian churches opened their homes to the 56 singers, who were here for three days.

Limited Time

Thayer Masoner, 53, is the management talent of the team. As a senior scientist at Litton Data Systems working on the Strategic Defense Initiative, he has little time for church business. But he manages to find 10 to 15 hours a week.

Said Janet Masoner: "He never goes out to lunch. He takes bites between phone calls and goes in early."

Masoner is not sure he's Welsh. "But I do have Celtic roots," he said.

As chairman of the trustees of the church, he is responsible for the building. Masoner's job has been to comply with city deadlines and hire and supervise the architect. Construction, scheduled to begin April 4, 1987, will also need to be monitored. That is when the $100,000 has to be in hand, he said.

Major repairs are needed. "The roof is shot and has to be replaced for earthquake-proofing. We've got to put steel braces up in some of the walls and put plywood on top where we've had lattice work."

It wasn't easy to find an architect, Masoner said. Because of the unique architectural qualities, they needed to find a company experienced in working with historical buildings. They selected Melvyn Green & Associates the same company that reinforced the Hearst Building in San Francisco and the 1906 Carnegie Library in Oxnard.

Other Problems

The church's structural problems have been hard for the congregation to face. But many congregants were worried about the church even before this, the Masoners say. The church is just a few blocks from the Convention Center, in an area that has been deteriorating. Many members have left the church for neighborhood churches in the suburbs.

Yet, said Thayer Masoner, with city redevelopment, there is promise once again in the area. And the steadfast members still go--out of devotion and love, he said.

"We are committed to celebrating our 100-year history, " he said. "It would be a shame, in what they call these last few inches of time, for the church to be demolished before our centennial. It would be a cultural and spiritual loss."

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