Church Is Monument to Activism

Times Staff Writer

The Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights would warrant city monument status if only because it is the oldest Episcopal church in Los Angeles. Built in 1887 and expanded in 1917, the Romanesque Revival chapel and adjoining main church in the English Gothic Revival style make up one of the city’s oldest surviving religious structures, preservationists say.

But it is substance, not form, that makes the Church of the Epiphany so important, said City Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents Lincoln Heights and helped get the church declared a cultural landmark Wednesday.

Yes, the church is an architectural and historic treasure, said Reyes, who grew up in the neighborhood. But it was the church’s role in the Chicano movement of the 1960s and ‘70s that he was eager to see also officially acknowledged. Reyes recalled when the church -- now still splendid inside, with its soaring ceiling and gleaming wooden arches, but dowdy outside -- was alive with folklorico dancers and other festive Chicano programs. And he remembers it as a force for change that sheltered and supported labor organizer Cesar Chavez and farmworkers.


On Wednesday, the City Council voted unanimously to give the church historic-cultural monument status. Previously, Reyes had requested that the vote be delayed to document the church’s political and cultural significance.

Visiting the church at 2808 Altura St. earlier in the week, Reyes pointed to an old photo of Chavez, speaking beneath the church’s gleaming stained-glass Epiphany window. Reyes recalled the excitement of those days when the labor organizer, supported by Father John Luce, the church’s pastor, and other clergy, “was within these walls, lecturing, motivating, and promoting change.”

In its heyday, Reyes said, the church was a center for social and political action on many fronts. Chicano protests against the Vietnam War were organized here, as well as the boycotts in support of Chavez and the farmworkers. Activists associated with the church also helped plan the East L.A. walkouts of local schools, or “blowouts,” to protest unequal education for Latinos.

The church held mariachi Masses. And beside its Anglican ecclesiastical art hung such traditional Mexican signs of devotion as the ojo de Dios, or God’s eye, and a mural of the Magi as three Aztec kings. The church buzzed with youth activities, well-baby programs and political action groups. The community newspaper La Raza was printed in the church basement.

“For me, what’s profound is the contrast between what we were doing for young people then and what we are doing now, which is not much,” Reyes said.

Dropout rates are still high, and too many in the community live in squalid conditions: “There’s a need for a new activism,” he said.

The church’s current pastor, Father Will Wauters, said the parish is not much different in size that it was 30 years ago. Sixty to 100 people come to church on Sunday. But the congregation has changed in other ways. Instead of a Chicano population that had grown roots in Lincoln Heights, today’s congregants are mostly new immigrants, many undocumented. On Tuesday mornings, when the church distributes bags of groceries, about 30% of the recipients are Asian, the rest Latino.

The ability of the late Father Luce and others to attract and inspire gifted young people “was the genius of the old days,” Wauters said.

Now 58, Rosalio Munoz, who helped organize Chicanos against the Vietnam War, recalled that Luce liked to radicalize his neighborhood proteges over a bottle of Blue Nun wine in a good restaurant.

“ ‘Our front line is here in the struggle for social justice’ was one of our slogans,” Munoz said. “And the church was very helpful.”

Wauters sees monument status as a tool to raise community consciousness once again.

“It affords us the opportunity to tell the story of those great days of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he said. “That story needs to be told so the young people of today break through their fatalism and realize that they too can create the conditions that can improve their lives.”

Now the parish hall, the original chapel was designed by Ernest Coxhead, an English-born ecclesiastical architect who later designed residences in the Arts and Crafts movement style. The architect for the main sanctuary, added in 1917, was Southern Californian Arthur Benton, best known for Riverside’s Mission Inn. The single-story chapel has a peaked roof. The sanctuary is more than two stories high and has a small tower.

When the church was built, Lincoln Heights was one of the wealthiest, most fashionable areas of the city. The first parishioners were mostly Anglo, but a substantial number of Native Americans also attended the church, a tribute to the persuasive powers of Episcopal missionaries. Italian immigrants, most of them Roman Catholic, began to move into the area, then Mexican families.

In addition to noting its value as a historic religious structure, the Los Angeles Conservancy’s director of preservation issues, Ken Bernstein, praised the church for its “layers of social and cultural history.” Before it embraced Chavez, the church welcomed organizer Saul Alinksy, who began encouraging political action on the part of ethnic communities in the late 1930s.

“This was a meeting place and a community center for political leaders and social activists,” Bernstein said.

Although the church is not currently threatened, designation as a historic-cultural monument offers some protection from demolition. The city’s Cultural Heritage Commission can stave off proposed demolition for 180 days, and the City Council can extend the stay for another 180 days. Under California law, monument status also requires an environmental impact report prior to demolition that must include examining alternatives.

Wauters and others also hope that the council’s recognition of the church will help raise money for its repair. The chapel needs earthquake retrofitting, the church needs a new roof and painting inside and out, “and all the stained-glass windows are in serious trouble,” he said.

He estimated the cost of needed repairs at $250,000.

On Wednesday, the Episcopal Diocese established an Epiphany Restoration Fund.

Whatever the church’s condition, supporters say giving it monument status sends an important message to the community it serves.

As Munoz said: “These young people need to know that people who looked like them made a difference, and they can make a difference.”