St. Andrew Presbyterian Church has been a fixture of the Sonoma Valley for 50 years! Having seen its share of joys and sorrow, challenges and triumphs, the congregation of St. Andrew has grown over the years to almost 300 members. While none of the original 26 parishioners are still with the church, there are a few active members who do recall the early days.
Part 1 – The Carriage House
Initially organized in 1960, the congregation of St. Andrew met at the home of The Rev. William Huskins, who subsequently became the first pastor. In 1961, the Presbytery of the Redwoods, St. Andrew’s parent church, purchased the Spreckles’ family carriage house for $48,000. Originally part of sugar magnate Rudolf Spreckles’ Sobre Vista estate, the structure was built in 1902 at the then substantial cost of $7,000. Infamous at the time, local legend describes some 70 craftsmen laboring for 70 days to construct a building to
further the Spreckels’ interest in horseracing.
Despite its typically humble use, this carriage house and stable complex were more elegant than many fine homes of the era, their interior finished in the finest glistening mahogany and fir paneling. With an area totaling 6,200 square feet, the two-story building was more than adequate for the newly formed church. The parishioners set to work transforming the old building. The large carriage room became the sanctuary, seating about 175 people. The tack room became the social room and the large double horse stalls became six Sunday school rooms. Another long row of horse stalls was converted to a choir room and a nursery room. The second floor, which had been used primarily as a hay loft, was left
unfinished and not used by the church. Other details in the fine craftsmanship of the building included giant wrought iron hinges on the stall doors and hand-forged iron hay feeders.
Due in large part to its historical nature as well as the warmth of its interior, the old building soon won the hearts of its parishioners. Regardless of the hard work required to maintain the structure, the congregation quickly felt a strong personal attachment to its
Through the intervening years, the church was well served by a series of very capable Pastors that included Ian Fraser, Morris Roach, Hugh Goss, William Dunlap, Douglas Millham, and our present pastor Richard Gantenbein.
Throughout these years, the condition of the much-loved building was often called into play. Having withstood more than 80 years of Sonoma’s hot, dry climate, the structure was recognized as vulnerable to fire.
In 1986, a task force was formed to do long-range planning for the preservation of the church structure. Among the issues addressed were fire prevention, document storage, and a review of the insurance policy. In the event of a fire, temporary facilities were secured and a decision was made to rebuild on the church’s present location. Finally, a complete photographic inventory of the interior furnishings and the exterior construction details of the church was recommended. These areas of study were developed and put into action where appropriate between April 1986 and March 1989.
Part 2 – Tragedy on Palm Sunday
As part of the ongoing preservation of the church, an annual Spring work day was set up for Saturday, March 18, 1989. As was the custom in the church, a work party of 20 to 30 people was held to clean up the building and grounds just prior to Easter Sunday. Weeds were cut, lawns mowed, flowerbeds weeded and trimmed and the parking area cleaned. Inside the building others were cleaning, dusting, washing windows and sprucing up the various rooms for the coming holiday. Several truck loads of garden trimmings and trash were hauled to the dump.
Unfortunately, none of the long-range planning could have prepared the congregation for what happened next. Early in the evening of Sunday, March 19, the beloved old carriage house caught fire. Oil- and turpentine-soaked rags used to polish the huge old hinges, walls and doors spontaneously combusted in a garbage can, quickly engulfing the building and all of its contents.
According to Valley of the Moon Fire Chief Bob Bettencourt, the combination of the lacquer surfaces and linseed oil created a fire so hot and fast that nothing could be done to stop it. Additionally, the old-fashioned hay chutes inside the converted horse stalls helped move the fire to the former second story hay loft rapidly.
Among the contents destroyed were the choir director’s $75,000 Steinway grand concert piano as well as a new $20,000 electric organ. Antique pews, salvaged from Our Lady’s Home Catholic retirement home were consumed by the fire and the bell brought from the old Fulton church melted. Of particular note was the loss of both the pastor’s robes, never before worn together during one worship service.
One of the only items to survive the fire was the large, handmade, walnut-on-oak Celtic cross fixed on the outside of the church. While the rest of the building roared in flames, the cross stood intact, attached to the only wall left standing. Despite orders not to go inside the burning building, a group of firemen, led by congregation member and firefighter Tom
Shearer, rushed to the cross and dragged it out as its supporting wall collapsed.
Laughter and Tears Beside the Ashes
When asked for comment, pastor Rich Gantenbein summed up the fire with these words, “We must recognize that a church is not a building. We will pull together, we will make it together. That is the only way.”
Another St. Andrew board member, Donna Gordon, was also philosophical about the loss saying, “It’s all in God’s plan somewhere. It was a wonderful building but it’s not the church. We are the church. They can’t take that away from us.”
With that, St. Andrew picked itself up and continued on, holding Easter services as planned but with a twist – outside in the parking lot.
As luck would have it, there was something else left in the ashes, Rev. Gantenbein told the congregation and other well wishers gathered for Easter services. Two parishioners sifting through the rubble turned up a signed but intact sheet of choir music by the Van Trapp family. The title of the piece Gantenbein held in his hand for all to see was “Bring Your Torches.”
When the ensuing laughter died down Gantenbein reminded the nearly 200 present to, “always keep a sense of humor, even in the midst of tears.” He also urged his congregation to see a new opportunity in the ashes and to participate in the rebuilding of the church.
During the remainder of the Easter service Gantenbein made a direct correlation between the resurrection of Christ and the rebuilding of the church stating, “Christ was resurrected through the power of God. In looking to God, we will participate in the resurrection. It is
ultimately a faith issue.”
Part 3 – Rebuilding the Structure
The loss sustained from the fire was so sudden, so complete and so unexpected that it left the congregation temporarily stunned. Fortunately, the Session and the congregation had the resiliency to recover quickly due in large part to the Disaster Recovery Plan that had been established three years prior.
Churches in the community came forward to offer accommodations for both church services and office space, Hanna Boy’s Center and Faith Lutheran among them. St. Andrew jumped at the chance. The Session met frequently in the first few weeks to organize and lay the groundwork for the challenges ahead.
It was decided that the church would be rebuilt on the same site. Committees were established to assess both the monetary losses and the new building needs. A satisfactory insurance settlement would go a long way in the recovery process and a separate committee was convened to handle this aspect of the project. After several false starts, a figure of $1,623,725.42 for both the building and its content was submitted to the insurance company and accepted without question. On February 22, 1990, less than one year after the fire, the entire process was complete and St. Andrew was on its way to a new home.
Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on the site on Easter Sunday, 1991, just two
years after the fire. Following the design of noted architect William Turnbull Jr., the construction process took approximately one year from start to finish. One highlight of the construction process was the installation of the cupola. The cupola had been constructed completely on the ground and its subsequent lifting and placement gave the congregation a lift of its own.
It should be noted that as a cost saving measure, the church agreed to do most of the exterior landscaping and planting themselves. Large Saturday work parties labored to install sprinkler systems, lay brick walkways, build retaining walls, construct the play yard, and create the courtyard and fountain parishioners see today as they enter the church.
The loose ends all began to fall together as Easter of 1992 approached. All of the intensive planning and hard work was drawing to a close. The first Sunday services in the new church were held on March of 1992, just three years and ten days after the fire. Since that time, the church has gone on to win numerous awards and accolades for its design and functionality. The old oak cross, rescued from the fire, can be seen just outside the Narthex.
Rebuilding the Church…
There are lessons to be learned throughout life, some incidental, some major. In the case of St. Andrew, the fire worked to bring an already self-described “close-knit” church community closer together. Individuals and families, community members and tradespeople gave generously of their time, their talent, and their resources to help the church rebuild.
Seizing the challenge of rebuilding as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, as Rich Gantenbein described, has proven to be an exhilarating and long-term experience for St.Andrew as a whole. While the fire is no longer dwelt upon, it is a strong reminder of the potential in all of us to forever challenge ourselves.
As a congregation, let us always be alert to the possibilities before us and be prepared both spiritually and physically to promote God’s work in our world.
Part 4 – St. Andrew Continues to Grow
Today, St. Andrew Presbyterian is a church on the move. From our original membership of 26 we have grown more than ten-fold. While the average church commonly sees regular attendance at services by about one-third of its registered members, at St. Andrew, attendance levels are regularly in excess of 80-90 percent of membership.
There’s a real sense of community at St. Andrew. As a regular part of each worship service, Reverend Rich invites the congregation to turn and extend greetings to those around them and introduce themselves to visitors and new members. Coffee in the Narthex between Sunday services is another opportunity for people to greet friends and neighbors. And
throughout the week, St. Andrew is home to church activities, groups and meetings as well as a community resource for groups from Alcoholics Anonymous to Mothers of Pre-schoolers (MOPS).
The author of the historical information, Jody Purdom, has drawn heavily from previously published articles in the Sonoma Valley Index Tribune as well as the binder prepared by Ralph Bergen titled “From the Ashes” documenting St. Andrew’s fire and rebuilding effort.