The Rev. Louis H. Evans, organizing pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church, dies at 82

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The Rev. Louis H. Evans Jr., the organizing pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church who went on to lead the congregation of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., where Ronald Reagan worshiped while he was president, has died. He was 82.

FOR THE RECORD: A photo caption with an obituary of the Rev. Louis H. Evans Jr. in Sunday’s California section incorrectly said he was survived by three children. Evans, the organizing pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church, is survived by four children.

Evans died Wednesday at his home in Fresno after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, his son Jamie said.

Born June 20, 1926, Evans was one of four children of Marie and the Rev. Louis Hadley Evans Sr., the longtime pastor of Hollywood Presbyterian Church who built that congregation into one of the Protestant denomination’s largest in the 1950s.


Louie, as the son was known, graduated from Hollywood High School and Occidental College before serving in the Navy during World War II.

After his discharge, Evans attended a revival meeting led by evangelist Henrietta Mears and felt a call to Christian ministry, his son said.

In 1950, Evans married actress Colleen Townsend, who made headlines by saying she was gladly giving up her Hollywood film career to devote her life to her husband and their ministry.

After studying at San Francisco Theological Seminary and the University of Edinburgh, he was ordained in 1953 and intended to pursue a missionary career in Africa.

But Presbyterian leaders had other ideas. Evans was asked to help organize a new church in Bel-Air. He and his wife, whom nearly everyone called Coke, welcomed the congregation’s first group of worshipers into their home in April 1956. In September of that year, the 30-year-old Evans was named pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church.

At the beginning, the church’s 75 charter members met at Bellagio Road School in the Sepulveda Pass while construction of a strikingly modern chapel began on Mulholland Drive overlooking the San Fernando Valley.


By the time Evans left in 1963, the church had 700 members. Now led by the Rev. Mark Brewer, it is the largest Presbyterian congregation in the Los Angeles area, with an average of 2,700 attending a total of three worship services on Sundays.

“As an organizing pastor, you probably set the culture more than any pastors who come in later. That’s for good or for bad; in this case it was for good,” Brewer told The Times on Friday.

“I thank the Lord for Louie and Coke’s start, because once a ship gets going, it’s easier to turn an oil tanker than a big church, and he set it in a great direction.”

Evans moved on to La Jolla Presbyterian Church and served there until he was named senior pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in 1973.

Known as the church that Dwight D. Eisenhower attended while he was president, it also became the regular Sunday destination for Reagan and his wife, Nancy, while they were in Washington from 1981 to 1988. (At home in California, they attended Bel Air Presbyterian Church, which was led by the Rev. Donn Moomaw for 29 years after Evans’ departure).

“There were D.C. congressmen, senators, janitors and people who delivered newspapers,” Evans’ son said in describing the Washington congregation during his father’s 18 years there.


After retiring in 1991, Evans returned to California and assisted at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church before moving to Fresno, where his son Jamie is senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church.

Evans is also survived by his wife of nearly 58 years; sons Dan, a lawyer who lives in Washington state, and Tim, a doctor in Fresno; a daughter, Luanda Goodrich of Atlanta, who married a pastor; nine grandchildren; and his two sisters, Lolly Deats, who attends Bel Air Presbyterian Church, and Marily Demarest of Pasadena, who also married a pastor.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church of Fresno. Donations may be made to the Louis Evans Jr. Memorial Fund, First Presbyterian Church, 1540 M St., Fresno, CA 93721.

Noland is a Times staff writer.