The history of Seventh Avenue is a story of waxing and waning; contracting and growing; breathing in and breathing out. It is a story of one community’s century-long efforts to faithfully “serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” It is a story that reveals the Hand of God guiding a people through often challenging times.
Founded by Cumberland Presbyterians, The Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church has had a vital ministry in San Francisco since 1892. In 1905, in order to strengthen her ministry, Seventh Avenue joined the larger Presbyterian denomination which today is the Presbyterian Church (USA).
In 1850, one year after the Gold Rush expanded San Francisco’s population from 500 to 20,000, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, Cornelius Tager, preached the first Protestant sermon ever given in San Francisco. In 1892, the first Cumberland Presbyterian Church was organized downtown as a mission church, receiving support from Cumberland’s Board of National Missions. Although membership grew to 132 at one point, it was down to seven members trying to keep the church going when the Rev. William Fisher arrived in 1903 from the East Coast.
With the support of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Dr. Fisher surveyed the city of suitable land and purchased three lots on Seventh Avenue in 1905. Construction took nine months and cost $9,500. The new church building was dedicated on September 22nd, 1907. During the construction, in 1906, sectors of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church united with the Northern Branch of the mainline Presbyterian Church, and we became Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church which is now a congregation of the Presbyterian Church [USA].
Within ten years the congregation was self-supporting. When the membership rose to 300 in the 1920’s a new building was needed. The original building sat at the back of the lot with a garden and lawn facing the street. It was lifted up to what is now the second floor. The social hall was built beneath it, and the new sanctuary was built where the garden had been. The facility was dedicated in mid-1929. The Rev. Fisher, believing it was time for new leadership, resigned and was replaced by The Rev. Albert Saunders.
A SEASON OF STRUGGLE
Just as the building was completed, underwritten by pledges of $54,000, the Great Depression of the 1930’s unfolded, leaving desolation and destitution in its wake. Many Seventh Avenue members who made pledge-commitments were unable to fulfill them, resulting in a rising church debt. To make matters worse, the man in charge of the Building Fund absconded with the funds that had been donated! Rev. Saunders, discouraged, resigned in 1935.
Paul Burchholz served as interim minister for a year. In 1936 the Rev. Walter Subke, vacationing in to San Francisco, preached two sermons at Seventh Avenue. He was then extended a unanimous call by an eager congregation. His 23 years with us were a story of hard work, struggle, and eventual success. He worked tirelessly to get the immense loan paid off. He organized the “Mountain Movers Club,” secured a loan from the Board of Missions (of the denomination), and solicited gifts from churches and individuals. In three years he reduced the debt from $30,000 to $12,000. In 1953 the loan was paid off and the mortgage documents were burned to mark the occasion.
A SEASON OF GROWTH AND CHANGE
As the neighborhoods of San Francisco swelled with newfound prosperity in the 50’s and 60’s, so did SAPC. In the years from 1953 to 1960, membership grew to 406, requiring a Director of Christian Education to oversee a Sunday School program that eventually included hundreds of children. The newly hired educator, H. Norman Roddick, subsequently was ordained and installed as the Assistant Pastor. When Pastor Subke retired in 1960, Rev. Roddick became the Pastor.
Pastor Roddick oversaw significant expansion of ministry and service throughout the community. He created the Senior Center in 1961 and was founder of the Sunset Council of Churches (now known as Sunset Ecumenical Parish). He dreamed of a senior housing complex on the two lots purchased in 1858. When he received another call in 1968, then Assistant Pastor Rev. John J. Williams, who had been working with young adults, stepped in as interim minister until November 1968 when The Rev. Douglas R. Baer was called.
Rev. Baer served for nine years. He brought to fruition the building of the 30-unit low rent senior housing, Park Sunset Apartments, which was dedicated in 1972. It was built on the lots which had served variously as a parking lot, a meeting place for young adults, and a halfway house for men returning to the mainstream following prison. In 1969 Doug Baer was one of the founding members and first president of SPEAK, Sunset Parkside Education and Action Committee.
The dramatic convulsions in society during the 60’s and 70’s, such as movement for racial, gender, and sexual orientation equality, profoundly impacted SAPC. Session records showed that in the early 1970’s, SAPC went on a record as a church committed to the full equality of all, including sexual orientation minorities. A mass movement by residents from the city to the suburbs resulted in the loss of many long time SAPC members. Doug McKinney was called as Assistant Pastor to minister to young adults and seniors, but the position was terminated in 1975 when membership fell. Finally the church could no longer afford a full time person to minister to the remnants, and Pastor Baer resigned 1977.
There were fewer than 30 active members when the church hired Trilla Jentzsch as Church Administration to hold together what was left.
AN IMAGINATIVE NEW MODEL
At the brink of extinction, Seventh Avenue searched for a part time pastor with limited funds. In the midst of this dilemma, the San Francisco Young Adult Network approached the Session with a plan: The Rev. Glenda Hope and staff would provide pastoral care and we, in turn, would provide the Network with a building and a place to expand their ministry. And, thus, on June 1, 1978, we signed the initial contract with the Network. This cooperative ministry was beneficial to us both: having a stable home enabled the Network to expand in various ways, including into the Tenderloin; and Seventh Avenue began to grow with a new sense of purpose, outreach, and inclusiveness.
In the early 1980’s, during it’s the Network’s tenure, we became a More Light church, a Sanctuary Church, and wheelchair accessible. We sponsored a Vietnamese family of 11 refugees. We continue to volunteer in the Tenderloin, and participated in beginning the AIDS Interfaith Network, a support to those suffering from AIDS, their friends and families. In 1989 the pastoral agreement with the Network came to a friendly parting of the ways. Rev. Glenda Hope felt a need to expand the Tenderloin Ministry, and Seventh Avenue, revitalized and with a reputation as a warm inclusive community committed to peace and justice, began looking for new pastor.
A NEW VITALITY
“It’s a Girl!” announced the arrival of the Rev. Jean Richardson as our half-time pastor in 1989 – mere months before the October earthquake. SAPC’s building sustained considerable damage, but under Jean’s leadership, and with help from Presbytery, the larger church and the government, we were back in the sanctuary within a year. In October of 1991, the Rev. Jeffrey Gaines was called as half-time Co-pastor, and so began his relationship with Seventh Avenue.
In March of 1992, the Elizabeth Fry Day Care Center began, followed by the Paddy Bear Day Care Center in 1993, the Inner Sunset Development Center in 1996, and Stepping Stones (day care of children) in 1997. Twelve-Step recovery groups began to multiply, and we are currently host to the largest number of groups in San Francisco. We also became home to two other congregations: Dignity of San Francisco, which continues to share space with us, and First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, which has since found another home.
In 1995, Jean Richardson resigned to take a full-time position at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian Conference center in New Mexico, leaving Pastor Gaines as our sole pastor. Under his guidance we received the Urban Ministry Award in 1996 and the Pax et Bonum Award in 2002. The sanctuary was renovated under the guidance of Kimberly Murman and rededicated in 1996. A new church education program was started in 1998, and we became a part of the Center for Progressive Christianity in 2000. The church hosts over a thousand people a week and looks to increase its visibility and role in the community for the new century. In March of 2004 Companions on the Inner Way Retreats, a contemplative retreat program which had been sponsored for 20 years by San Francisco Theological Seminary joined our family of ministries. In 2004 we also had the inauguration of our new concert series – Seventh Avenue Performances. We are poised and ready to take on the challenges of the future with a wonderful staff and a vibrant, growing congregation.