100 Years of Joy in a Tiny Sanctuary : 36 Couples Renew Vows at Church of the Angels’ Centennial

Times Staff Writer

Exactly 64 years later, right down to the date and hour, Louise and Charles Fishburn repeated their marriage vows and kissed again, just as they had in that same place June 11, 1925, at 3 in the afternoon.

This time there was no price sticker on the sole of a shoe to embarrass the bride, as there had been the first time she knelt at the altar of the Church of the Angels.

At that same Pasadena Episcopal church on April 6, 1963, Ralph and Barbara Villani’s wedding guests forgot to bring rice, so they tossed grits, the closest last-minute substitute they could scrounge from the vicar’s wife.


Funny, beautiful, tearful and sentimental moments were relived last Sunday at the quaint historic 100-year-old church on Pasadena’s Avenue 64, where 36 couples returned to renew their wedding vows.

The occasion was a celebration of the Church of the Angels’ centennial, an event that began on Easter and will end on St. Michael and All Angels Day on Sept. 24. The church’s cornerstone was laid the day before Easter in 1889, and the completed building was consecrated just in time to be named for All Angels Day that year.

In its first century, 3,000 weddings were recorded in the Church of the Angels’ registry.

Built as Memorial

Built as a memorial to landowner Alexander Robert Campbell-Johnston by his widow, the tiny church was patterned after the British couple’s favorite Holmbury St. Mary’s Church in Surrey, England.

In 1889, the 3,000-acre Johnston-Campbell farmland was in an area known as Garvanza, later to be called Highland Park. The church is one of the Episcopal Diocese’s oldest buildings and has always served an active, albeit small, parish. It seats 125 and has about 75 families in its membership. It is a registered historic landmark and remains almost exactly as it was when first built.

Made of sandstone, red brick and redwood, with a huge stained glass window, pipe organ and beautiful handcrafted pulpit, lectern, baptistery and statuary, it was a popular wedding site from the beginning.

“We could easily have three weddings a week, but we try to serve as an Episcopal parish church and not a wedding chapel,” said the rector, the Rev. Robert Gaestel. Newlyweds are required to attend the church and have premarital counseling sessions.

Fewer Now

There are now only about 12 weddings there in a year, Gaestel said.

History was relived for those who returned Sunday for the special 3 p.m. ceremony and champagne-and-cake reception. The church was decorated as if for a wedding, with white ribbons marking the pews, each of which seats only five or six people. Each “bride” received a miniature bouquet and the men were given boutonnieres.

The Fishburns, who lived in Pasadena for many years and now make their home in South Laguna, were the longest-married of the guests. They chose the church in 1925 for its beauty and its small size because, they said, they were new to the area and didn’t know enough people to fill a large church.

“I wish I could find my gown,” Louise Fishburn said. “I think I must have misplaced it about 50 years ago.” The newest newlyweds were Tsuzumi and Patrick Timothy Day, who married this year on St. Patrick’s Day. They said they chose the church because he grew up in the neighborhood.

Reflection of the Times

In between there were marriages that reflected America’s history. Robert and Augusta Sherman of Whittier were married during the Depression in 1934 and returned for their 50th anniversary in 1984. “It blessed us, that’s why we lasted so long,” Robert Sherman said.

Richard and Josie Hansen of San Marino and V. N. and Lillian Williams of Oceanside were married Nov. 28, 1936, at a double wedding that only their families attended because there wasn’t room for anyone else. The two women had been grade school chums, and both couples returned for Sunday’s event.

Dr. and Mrs. T. Burton Smith of Brentwood married there in July, 1943, because, they said, during World War II “it was not appropriate to have a big wedding.” From 1984 to 1986, Smith, a urologist, served as President Reagan’s physician in Washington.

Kay Laber Case of Pico Rivera, who grew up next door in what was then known as the Episcopal Church Home for Children, married Charles Case in the church in 1954. “I started in the home at age 5, so this was really home to me,” she said.

The Church Home for Children, a large complex of buildings that shares the church site, was for children whose parents couldn’t provide homes for them. Now called Hillsides, it serves as a sanctuary for abused children.

Brooke and Edward Garlock chose the Church of the Angels for their Aug. 14, 1976, wedding because of its size.

“My mother wanted All Saints,” Brooke Garlock said, referring to the Episcopal church that is one of Pasadena’s largest. “She only wanted to invite the whole city,” her husband said.

First Anniversary

Roger and Lani Leigh, who married in the tiny church on June 11, 1988, celebrated their first anniversary in their wedding finery--he in gray dress clothes, she in a long lace-and-pearl gown. She was one of three brides who wore their wedding dresses for the celebration.

In a brief talk during the service, Gaestel said: “From the time the church opened to the present there have been tremendous changes in how people think about marriages. Not long ago, people didn’t want to be married in church at all, and women didn’t want to be ‘given away’ from one man to another. Couples wanted to be married in a park or on a beach and to write their own vows. Now traditional church weddings have come back with a vengeance.”

Sue Schechter, chairman of the centennial, said no exact records have been kept of the couples who married in the church, so it was impossible to track them down. Most contact was by word of mouth and publicizing in the church bulletin.

As it was, the 36 couples and their families filled the church.