RIVERSIDE: Abolitionists gave church its start

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The First Congregational Church on Mission Inn Avenue is one of Riverside’s most significant architectural buildings and its first church.

By NITA HILTNER | Special to The Press-Enterprise

The First Congregational Church on Mission Inn Avenue is one of Riverside’s most significant architectural buildings and its first church.
Its Spanish Baroque Churrigueresque building and tower make it distinctive on the outside. On the inside, it has been the spiritual home of several famous Riverside founding families.
Don Miller, church moderator, said today’s building, constructed in 1912, was preceded by two others. The first church at Sixth and Vine streets was chartered by the Congregational Society the same year as Riverside’s founding, 1872, but it was used by all denominations except the Catholics as a community church.
“The founding members of the Riverside church were from Tennessee, New England and Minnesota, all former abolitionists. John North, Riverside’s founder, was a strong abolitionist, and he was our choir director for many years,” said Miller.
The church originated in New England as the United Church of Christ (Pilgrims). It played an important part in the abolitionist and civil rights movements.
It was the first Protestant denomination in America to ordain an African-American (1785, Lemuel Haynes), a woman (1853, Antoinette Brown), and an openly gay person (1972, William Johnson).
Miller said the first church building was pretty crude, which led to a new church being built in 1887 at Seventh and Lemon streets.
He said Mission Inn builder Frank Miller probably was the deciding factor on the style of the present church. The church was designed by architect Myron Hunt, who designed the Spanish Wing of the Mission Inn, Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, Occidental College and the Ambassador Hotel.
The church is built of unreinforced brick and concrete. J.H. Cresmer built the church and Henry Jekel engineered the 135-foot tower. The new church was dedicated on Jan. 25, 1914.
Though not yet retrofitted, the church is building a fund to do so.
Miller said the church has been a bastion of liberal thought throughout its history. One member donated land for the first black church in Riverside. The church held Japanese services during World War II. Frank Miller bought the Harada house to save it for the Japanese Riverside family who had been sent to a camp during the war.
Miller said that six Riverside mayors before 1930 belonged to the church as does the current mayor. The church also helped build Plymouth Tower and has an outreach to UCR.
Nine stained glass windows were added to the church between 1947 and 1955, one of them a copy of the Sistine Chapel’s Madonna paid for by pennies the church’s children saved.
For many years, the tower held no bells.
In 1989, Miller installed the 25 cast bronze carillion bells made by the Piccard Foundry in France in honor of his son Scott, who died in 1988. The bells are the only pealing bells in Southern California and contain the names of memorialized church family members.
Information: (951) 684-2494
Reach Nita Hiltner: nhiltner1@sbcglobal.net