It is quite fitting that directly south of Sutter’s Fort – the 19th century establishment that predates the founding of the city of Sacramento – sits a church that was established when the fort was only a decade old.
A Christmas service is held in the church’s 5,500-square-foot sanctuary in this c. 1950 photograph. / Photo courtesy of Pioneer Congregational Church
Presently located at 2700 L St., this church – the Pioneer Congregational Church – was organized on Sunday, Sept. 16, 1849 in a schoolhouse on the northwest corner of 3rd and I streets.
During this time, the church was known as the First Church of Christ and was led by its pastor, the Rev. Joseph Augustine Benton.
Benton, who served as the church’s pastor for all of its first 14 years, with the exception of an 18-month leave of absence, boarded the California-bound ship, Edward Everett, in Boston on Jan. 12, 1849.
Aboard the ship was a group of 150 men, of whom Benton was their chaplain.
After reaching Yerba Buena (present day San Francisco) seven months later, Benton spent only four days there before making his way to Sacramento.
Despite reaching Sacramento on July 14, 1849, Benton arrived sick and was unable to immediately preach.
Yale grad pastorAn early record of the church shows that Benton, who was a graduate of Yale College (present day Yale University) and the Yale seminary, preached in a grove near the southeast corner of 3rd and K streets on July 22, 1849.
Following this sermon, Benton spent about two weeks along the Mokelumne River and in his journal he noted the high costs of food in the area during these Gold Rush times. These prices included $5 for a loaf of bread and $1.50 for a pie.
About five weeks after returning from the Mokelumne River area, Benton served as chairman of the aforementioned Sept. 16, 1849 gathering that established the church to “embrace all Congregationalists and Presbyterians.” The policy of the church, however, was Congregational.
A report of the church’s early activities names 27 members of the church in 1849. The only female member of the church at this time and for its first two years was Mrs. James Alexander.
Two months after the church’s founding, a lot was purchased on 3rd Street, near M Street for the purpose of constructing a chapel.
The chapel was never built at this location, however, and the $1,500 invested in the property was exchanged for a 40-foot by 80-foot parcel on the west side of 6th Street, between I and J streets.
The Rev. Joseph Augustine Benton, shown in this historic drawing, served as the church’s first pastor from 1849 to 1863. / Image courtesy of Pioneer Congregational Church
A natural disaster occurred in Sacramento on Jan. 8, 1850, as floodwaters spread from the embarcadero to Sutter’s Fort. And as a result of the flood, religious services in the city were suspended for the following two months.
On April 7, 1850, a committee was formed to raise funds to have a church structure built on the 6th Street property.
After the frame of a building was purchased and arranged to be delivered to Sacramento for the future church, the main part of the frame was burned in a fire in San Francisco on May 3, 1850.
First cornerstone laid
The following month, a parsonage was constructed on the property and the cornerstone was placed for the new church on Sept. 4, 1850.
When completed, the Grecian-style church building measured 30 feet by 60 feet and included a tower and a gallery for the choir.
Ironically, the church’s Ladies Benevolent Society was established on July 13, 1853, which was exactly one year prior to one of the most tragic times in the church’s history.
The church, which had a bell added to its features and had been enlarged by 12 feet, was destroyed in the July 13, 1854 fire that began shortly after 1 p.m. at the back of B.C.
This flyer advertises for the Jan. 11, 1865 lecture by the church’s second pastor, the Rev. Isaac Edson Dwinell. The event raised funds for the purchase of the church’s organ, which was acquired during the following month. /Photo courtesy of Pioneer Congregational Church
Newcomb’s furniture store at 77 K St., between 3rd and 4th streets. The fire continued to 7th and I streets, where it destroyed the county courthouse.
Only two weeks passed before efforts were made to build a new church building.
In the meantime, services were held at a pair of alternative sites, including at a theater building on 3rd Street, between I and J streets.
Second cornerstone laid
On property purchased by the church, almost directly across from the old church on the northeast side of the alley between I and J streets on 6th Street, the cornerstone for the new church building was laid on Sept. 21, 1854.
A dedication service, which included a sermon by Benton, was held on Dec. 31, 1854.
1950s members of the Pioneer Congregational Church’s all-female Tri-S Club, which was founded in 1932. (Left to right) Mary Stacy, Lois Sucher and Marjorie McKesson. / Photo courtesy of Pioneer Congregational Church
By early 1856, all but two Presbyterians left the church to assist in establishing the First Presbyterian Church in Sacramento.
A week following Benton’s 10th anniversary sermon on June 14, 1859, he took his aforementioned leave of absence, as he traveled around the world. This trip included time spent in China and the Holy Land.
After his return to Sacramento, Benton gave lectures about the Holy Land and other places he had visited.
The winter of 1861-62 brought a devastating flood to Sacramento and as a result of this flood, 14 inches of water sat on the church’s floor before it was raised.
On Feb. 22, 1863, Benton preached his farewell sermon, as many tears were shed.
Benton, who passed away on April 9, 1892, was buried in a cemetery at the corner of 13th and Clay streets in Oakland.
Succeeding Benton as pastor was the Rev. Isaac Edson Dwinell, who served in this position for 20 years.
About a year after Benton’s departure, a well documented drive was conducted to obtain an organ for the church, which was then often referred to as the Sixth Street Congregational Church. The church was officially incorporated as the First Congregational Church of Christ on June 20, 1899.
The organ drive resulted in a Boston-manufactured organ, which The Sacramento Union later called “the largest and finest instrument of the Pacific Coast outside of San Francisco,” being purchased and transported to the church from Massachusetts. The first concert using this organ was held on Feb. 23, 1865.
In 1905, the church building underwent an extensive interior renovation, which included the laying of new carpet, the placement of new stained glass windows and the remodeling and enlargement of the organ through funds provided by the heirs of Charles and Mary Crocker.
The renovated church was the site of local aid given to refugees of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, as cots were provided in the basement and food and clothing were distributed.
In June 1910, Cornelia E. Fratt donated the northeast corner of 15th and P streets to the church and discussions were held regarding the possibility of the construction of a new church building. The church, however, decided not to build a structure at this site.
In 1923, the church’s 6th Street property was sold for $35,000 and despite a movement by Mayor Albert Elkus to save the old church building, which had also served as the city’s only auditorium, the structure was eventually demolished.
Although the church purchased property at 29th and J streets, it was discovered that the site was too small for its planned church building.
As a result, property was acquired just west of the church’s then-temporary meeting site – the Tuesday Clubhouse at 2722 L St. – for the construction of the present church building.
Third cornerstone laid
Groundbreaking ceremonies for the new church building were held on March 30, 1926 and the cornerstone was laid six days later.
Pastor Phil Konz has been serving as the church’s settle minister since last August. He will officially be installed as the church’s pastor on Feb. 27. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong
The current church building, which was constructed by the McGillivray Construction Co., was dedicated on Nov. 21, 1926. It was also during this time that the church became known as the Pioneer Memorial Congregational Church.
Part of the historic Crocker organ was placed in the church structure and Mary E. Noyes donated the church’s large lantern lighting fixtures.
Centennial in 1949
In celebration of the church’s 100th anniversary, a “Centennial Week” was held from Sept. 11–18, 1949. The event concluded with a historical pageant on the Sutter’s Fort lawn, directly across from the church.
The church celebrated its 125 anniversary, beginning with the Wild West Picnic in Elk Grove Park in 1974.
A unique moment in the church’s history occurred during Queen Elizabeth’s 1983 tour of Sacramento.
During the queen’s visit to Sutter’s Fort, members viewed the event from the church, while the church’s bell announced and welcomed her arrival.
It was also during 1983 that the Rev. Lewis Knight, who is best remembered for his ministry with Francis House and AIDS patients, was installed as minister.
In 1992, George Meir, who according to the church’s history is “charged with leading the congregation toward renewal and revitalization,” began his pastorate at the church, which developed its mission statement: “Spiritual Pioneers caring for God’s diverse community.”
The church’s settle minister since last August, Pastor Phil Konz, 60, recently described the church as “always being on the cutting edge.”
The Pioneer Congregational Church sanctuary is shown in this recent photograph. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong
“As you come into the sanctuary, there’s beauty and serenity, but there’s also a sense of history and tradition, while at the same time, everything that we do from the preaching and the activities in the congregation and the community is progressive,” said Konz, whose official installation as the church’s pastor will occur on Feb. 27. “While churches were arguing in the 1960s about ordaining women, our forebearers were doing that in the 1850s. While integration was a big issue in the 1960s, our forebearers had already done that in the 1700s. Where ordaining gay clergy is a big issue today, we passed that barrier 30 years ago and we ordain gay clergy now. So, always being on the cutting edge has been part of this and having a traditional-looking sanctuary helps us to be rooted in the past, but it also frees us to go on and become pioneers in spiritual issues.”
In summarizing the church’s many changes, Konz, who was born in Nigeria and was the son of a Lutheran missionary, said, “We like to say our faith is 2,000 years old, but our thinking is not.”
Konz added that the church, which is a United Church of Christ denomination, “concentrates on unities and not divisions and the things that unite us as human beings.”
Today, the church, which has less than 100 members – a vast difference compared to the about 1,600 members that were on the church’s rolls during the 1950s and early 1960s – shares its building with the Spiritual Life Center, an independent interfaith church.
For additional information regarding this historic Sacramento church, visit www.pioneer.ucc.net.
The current, gothic-style Pioneer Congregational Church building was constructed in 1926. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong