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 early 2000’s saw many celebrations and branching out of our ministries, a building of a new energy at Seventh Avenue. We celebrated our centennial in 2003! 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.
In 2003 Ellen Rankin became an intern and Pastoral Associate in 2004, and began a ten-year relationship with SAPC. Luba Kravchenko became organist in 2004 and Director of Liturgical Music in 2007. We hosted John Bell and added $10,000 to Organ Fund. Even in the face of Recession we completed work on our building, celebrated with a Cable Car adventure at Christmas time, and watched as a new condominium arose next door, underpinning its foundation with steel pilings underneath Seventh Avenue. Ellen Rankin and others went to New Orleans to help with hurricane rebuilding. We closed out 2009 with becoming an Eucharistic church, celebrating communion every Sunday.
2010’s continued our years of growth. The Rev. Ellen Rankin became Senior Parish Associate and a movement began to create a Spirituality Center at Seventh Avenue. In 2012 Carolyn Foster became Director of Companions. and we marked the deaths of oldest members, since 1924, sisters Ruth McCullough and Harriet Wollesen. In 2013 youth and leaders of Carmichael Presbyterian Church completed a makeover of Cumberland Hall: paint, lighting and new flooring.The Seventh Avenue Center for the Arts and Spirituality was born. Senior Center celebrated 50 years, and Jenna Meyers became our new intern.
Mid-2010’s reflected a new energy. Following a year of study, a new unicameral board, Leadership Council (rather than Session and Board Deacons) was begun with the initiation of the New Design for Ministry. The Park Sunset Apartments were returned to SAPC. After much study it was decided to sell the apartments which impacted Seventh Avenue in so many ways. A new board was formed to manage the funds generated from the sale. Inner Sunset Community Advocates, or ISCA was formed to carry on the church’s original mission to support housing in San Francisco as well as supporting the ministries of Seventh Avenue. With a grant from ISCA a new roof and the painting of the church was completed. An Organ Committee was formed to tackle the job of renewing our nearly 100 year-old organ.
Along with fiscal changes Seventh Avenue was experiencing a growth in the number of young adults and families over the last ten years. This spurred the formation of the 2030 Hangout of young adults and creation of a new Church Youth Education Program and Children’s Music Program. Betty McNeil became our Director of Children’s Ministries and Irene Navarro joined the staff as Director of Children’s Music. A 2016 Mission Study was completed, and Jenna Meyers was called as Associate Pastor, the first call since 1991. Rev. Meyers ministered in all areas of church life, in particular, shepherding the growth of the 2030 group, leading the Women’s Spirituality group, and supporting the growth of the children’s ministry programs.
In 2019, our longest serving pastor of 30 years, the Rev. Jeffrey Gaines, decided to retire in 2020. The care and importance of his ministry over these 30 years cannot be overstated. He guided us through both turbulent times and times of growth both in our membership and fiscal health. The rebuild of our 100-year-old Estey pipe organ, a project that Pastor Gaines spearheaded, was completed in the summer of 2020, during the start if the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the shelter-in-place period of COVID-19 pandemic, our building was closed. Because of the virus, we turned to virtual services and activities which have initiated a period of creativity and possibility. Recorded audio services brought together voices of our congregation near and far, thanks to the audio engineering talents of Samantha Kostick. The turn to online connection have allowed the SAPC Diaspora to engage with the church and become involved in leadership. The Rev. Jenna Meyers became our full time Associate Pastor, guiding us through these times of uncertainty. Upon returning to in-person worship in August of 2021, we have embraced a hybrid worship model, offering services in person, on Zoom and as a contemplative podcast. A new Mission Study is in progress as we look to the future of our ministry and explore what our pastoral leadership will be.