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[whitespace] Church looks alive at 125

Willow Glen--If she's been teased about her age, she silently endures the jokes. She shows her wisdom in the stories she can tell about the good days and the not-so-good ones. It's her birthday this month, and friends have been busy for three years planning a proper party for her.

But she's not just any old lady. After all, it's her quasquicentennial celebration. That's right, the big one-two-five.

The honoree of this party is the First Congregational Church of San Jose, a fixture in the city since 1875. Ulysses Grant was president then, and California had joined the Union just 25 years before.

Current church members are extremely proud of their church's history and have planned a week's worth of activities beginning on May 13. A fashion show, a commissioned 125th anniversary hymn, a discussion of the social challenges in the church's history and a banquet are some of the celebration's highlights.

"I'm looking forward to the celebration. We've also had a big 100th anniversary," said Carole Bowers, who notes that this should top all past galas. Bowers, a member for 26 years, is chairing the anniversary festivities.

Church membership is currently at 700 constituents strong, with a range of young families, professionals and older members. The present church, with a 10-story spire and cross, on the corner of Hamilton and Leigh is not the original building.

Rather, the church had humble beginnings in downtown San Jose, but the groundbreaking at the new site, in the midst of almond groves, occurred in 1955, when the downtown location was squeezed by a growing business district and an expanding San Jose State University.

More than a century ago, transplanted New Englanders in San Jose wanted a church of their own in their Congregationalist tradition. In response, the Home Missionary Society, an early organization that oversaw the planting of the churches, sent the Rev. Theodore Munger as the first minister in 1875.

The original building was located at San Antonio and Third streets. Church records say that it was "tucked in between a Chinese laundry and a shanty in a row of mean buildings on San Antonio Street opposite the Baptist Church." The early church, with all its furnishings, cost $1,875.

Because of its close proximity to San Jose State, the church saw a close association with the university, which was the State Normal School in those days. Cheryl Houts, who compiled an oral history of the church, says that professors and students at the school were members of the church. In addition, First Congregation was often the site for many of the school's social activities.

Jack Chaplin remembers the ties to the university. In 1940, he moved from Antioch to San Jose to attend school but had trouble finding housing. He got help from the school's dean of men, who led him to Stephen Peabody, the minister from 1938 to 1953.

"I checked out the church, and he fixed up a bed and that was my room," said Chaplin. For two semesters, Chaplin lived in the second story of the church and enjoyed free room and board. "All I had to do was check the church at night and lock up the doors and help the janitor."

While Chaplin left voluntarily to join the Army Air Force during the war, all of the area's Japanese residents were forced to relocate to internment camps. The women of the church held a social tea in honor of the Japanese women and accompanied them to the Southern Pacific freight depot.

"I'm elated that during the Japanese internment, all the Japanese women were invited to tea. The church said everyone is a child of God and we don't support this," said Art Domingue, a minister for 21 years who retired in February.

Peabody was a pacifist throughout the war, and his opinions were not politically popular. Aside from the removal of the Japanese Americans, he later protested the use of atomic weapons and any peacetime extension of the draft. "Peabody is equated with anything having to do with peace," said Houts.

The 1940s marked only the beginning of the congregation's social activism. During the next two decades, the church took a stand against unfair housing practices. It was common in those days to refuse to sell or rent property to people based on their race. In contrast, Domingue says, many church members took out ads saying they would sell their house to anyone. "They really laid themselves open for criticism," he said.

Their tradition of social activism continues to this day. Every spring break, youth teams travel to Tijuana to build houses. Younger children participate in the Amore Ministries, where they donate money to buy bees and agricultural animals for needy areas.

"[Recipients] can only accept [animals] if they agree to give away half of what the animals produce. It's a type of self-help program," said Bowers.

For 10 years, the church has been a member of People Acting in Community Together, or PACT. This umbrella organization, made up of several churches, works to solve neighborhood problems.

First Congregation's pet project lately has been after-school homework centers, the first of which was implemented at Hoover Middle School in San Jose in 1993. Domingue cites studies that show how such centers raise students' grades and cut down on vandalism and truancy.

"The members of our church volunteer. After such a success, now in San Jose, there are lots of after-school programs with funds from the city's budget," said Domingue.

In 1999, First Congregation voted to become an "open and affirming" church, which means they welcome all gay and lesbian members. Domingue says that as a result of the vote, some members of the congregation have left the church, but he supports the vote.

"They feel the church let them down, which bothers me still. But my firm belief is that all children are God's children and all are welcome," he repeated.

The church wasn't always ready to embrace community issues. There was a brief period when members held a cool attitude toward the neighborhood beyond their church. Domingue explains this turnaround. "The church doesn't exist for itself. We listened to our gospel," he said.

The former minister says there are other episodes in the church's history that expose the congregation's human failings. During a recent sabbatical, Domingue spent three months reading all the records in the archives.

"I learned things that embarrass me. One minister was roasted by the local paper because he doubted that Mary could be a virgin," he said. "He was hounded by the church. I'm embarrassed that they were that rigid as not to create a system of dialogue."

The church's tradition of activism in the community has made an impression on the members, and many believe that it is the quality that most embodies the church's spirit. "Throughout history, we've been willing to deal with social issues that are not popular with the general public," said Willow Glen resident Kathy Cilker. "We've been willing to try new things, and that's the most gratifying."

In addition to the church's liberal character, Cilker also appreciates the traditional forms of worship on Sundays. Her family understands traditions well, as her husband's great-grandfather was an early member of the board of trustees.

Many of the women members also commend the church on providing strong female leadership. "The men work with women on a equal footing, and they're very much partners. We see that in our women ministers," said Carla Zaccheo, who orchestrated a video on the church's history. She said that the first woman minister was hired during the 1970s, though that move initially met some opposition. Today, there is a women's fellowship group and women moderators who work as part of the lay ministry.

Cilker, who was a moderator, explains the role. "The moderator chairs the executive board and runs the business meetings as a supervisor," she said. The position is an elected office with a term of two years.

Many of the congregation members are waxing philosophic as a result of the anniversary. "Until I did the oral history, [the impact of 125 years] never struck me," said Houts. "We don't acknowledge the past because we don't look back, but I'm proud of the people who went before me."

"I see humans striving to be the best that we can be," said Domingue. "It's a continuum of faithfulness and gives purpose to my years. I have a sense of fitting and belonging."

Jill Arnone, a Willow Glen resident and a member of the church for 13 years, says the church stands uniquely in this area as a steadfast memory of the past. "In this valley, it's unusual for an institution to have lasted this long. It's really an accomplishment," she said. "It's weathered through so many changes and years."

But right now, all that's on the organizers' minds is the upcoming gala. Carole Bowers is still struggling to put together the fashion show. She plans on exhibiting different styles for each decade but is looking for adequate models. "We're looking for tall size two's to fit in those corsets," she said. She also winces at the thought of another dangerous outfit, a crocheted wool mini dress from the 1960s.

The church will make available to its members copies of the video of the history, which includes footage of the current church's construction in 1955. In addition, participants may also get copies of Domingue's anecdotal history of the church, a 100-page book that was the result of his sabbatical.

The minister-turned-church historian is looking forward to the anniversary celebration, to which all past ministers are invited. Domingue had stayed away from the church since his retirement, to give the new minister the opportunity to establish himself among the congregation, and this will be his first time back.

"I'm looking forward to the fact that I have no responsibilities," he wisecracked. "But I'm delighted that they're finding they're part of a continuum. This is their church history and their celebration."
Michele Leung

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