Chico, Calif., was only a three-year-old budding community when Libbie Manlove Stansbury arrived from Maryland in 1877 as Oscar Stansbury’s new bride. When she learned the town had no Episcopal church, she exclaimed, “Land sakes alive! That’s incredible. Do you know I’ve been here only three days and already I’ve found my first project.”
Highly religious, Mrs. Stansbury believed Chico could not lay claim to being “civilized” until an Episcopal church was founded in the community. The Stansbury House (now an historical museum) became headquarters for visiting clergy working to establish an Episcopal mission in Chico.
Nearly two decades later, Rev. Arthur George traveled from Sacramento to hold services in the Masonic Hall on April 25, 1896. The services were popular and on May 1, 1896, St. John’s Episcopal Mission was established, complete with church warden Gilbert Taylor and Sunday school superintendent Emma Wilson.
Rumor has it that Annie Bidwell, known to hand out tracts of land to deserving churches, refused to donate property to build St. John the Evangelist, as the Episcopal Church uses real wine in Holy Communion. Annie was a staunch prohibitionist.
In 1899 a lot was purchased for $1700 at 5th and Broadway as the site for a future building. In October of 1900, Fr. George brought his 4 1/2 year ministry to a close, and Rev. Lewis Morris Wilkins took over the ministry. During his ministry the building of St. John’s became a reality. After a successful fund raising campaign, architect Arthur Benton from Los Angeles was hired to design the building.
Ground was broken on February 1, 1904 and the cornerstone laid with Masonic rites on April 9, 1904. The church was completed and ready for use on Jan 1, 1905. It was later incorporated on October 15, 1910.
The site at 5th and Broadway was so ideal that the United States Postal Service contacted the church wanting to buy the grounds for $25,000.
The vestry accepted, and began searching for a place to move their building. In 1912, the church re-located to 3rd and Salem, a corner lot it purchased for $11,500 from Mrs. Isaac Burk.
The Great Depression heavily hit the church’s attendance and thus income. In 1929, it took out a mortgage on the building that it was not able to repay until the early 1940s.
St. John’s growth re-kindled in 1945 during the leaderships of Rev. J Raymond Lemert (1946-1956) and Rev. Lloyd Gebhard (1957-1961). During these years the church prospered.
A new parish hall and rectory were build in 1948, and the Canterbury Club for college students and the Young People’s Fellowship were formed the following year. In 1952 a Baldwin organ was purchased.
By 1955 the little church on Salem was bursting at its seams, and leadership began to discuss how to address overcrowding. For a time, the church rented Sunday School classroom space from the Hotel Oaks next door. On four acres purchased in 1959, St. John founded a new mission: St. David Episcopal Church.
St. John’s current site, 6.5 acres on Floral Ave., was purchased around this time and added to the four acres on Ceres Ave. The land already had a house that was used by St. David’s Vicar, Rev. Norman Boyd, until 1963.
Leaders at St. John and St. David worked in tandem for years to maintain their thriving ministry groups: Canterbury Club, the Women’s Auxiliary, the Men’s Club, Altar Guild, St. John’s Guild, St. Claire’s Guild, St. Bride’s Guild, and St. Ann’s Guild.
In 1970, both churches were poised to be without priests, and Bishop Haden suggested the two merge. Almost unanimously, St. John’s and St. David’s congregations voted in favor. St. John the Evangelist Church became the new name.
After the fire marshall listed more than a dozen building code violations at the old Salem location the following year, St. John the Evangelist decided to build a new facility at the Floral Ave. location. It held on to the St. David and the Salem facilities for years under growing repair costs. But by 1982, it was clear that the church would have to let go of its beloved Salem property.
Amid controversy, William and Amy Pang bought the old church building and launched Dynasty Restaurant and Nightclub in 1984. The nightclub failed, and an Anglican group bought the church in 1994. To this day it is St. Augustine Church.
Meanwhile, groundbreaking on Floral Ave. had commenced on September 24, 1983. The new church was dedicated on May 24, 1984.
TO BE CONTINUED…