Our History

Santa Barbara was a sleepy little town of 2,000 in 1869 when 19 people formed the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara.

With the encouragement of the Session we oversaw the birth of El Montecito (1887), St. Andrews (1959) and Goleta Presbyterian (1960) churches from our congregation. Today we maintain an active membership and a respected place in the Santa Barbara community.

The Congregation’s first meetings were in homes, then for a brief time in the Ruiz Adobe on the corner of Canon Perdido and Chapala Streets, which was later used as the courthouse. The Rev. H. H. Dobbins served as first pastor. Subsequently members erected a small frame chapel with a seating capacity of 100 at the southeast corner of Ortega and De La Vina Streets. The sum of $300 to help build this chapel came from Calvary Church of San Francisco. In 1874 the congregation built a frame and brick building on State Street between Figueroa and Anapamu. The steeple, which soared 130 feet, was a guide for seamen and land surveyors alike. Under the pastorate of Dr. Augustus Carrier, this church was later remodeled to seat more worshippers. In 1891 the Santa Barbara Presbytery was formed, breaking away from the Los Angeles Presbytery.

FPC 1874

First Presbyterian Church 1874

Years later, to accommodate the growing congregation, a new church was built on East Anapamu Street, across from the library. The Rev. Warren More, pastor, led the congregation in a march from the old church to the new one, which seated nearly 800 people. It was dedicated, debt free, in 1918 .On June 29, 1925, a devastating earthquake caused the bell tower to crash into the sanctuary, damaged the tile roof, and led to the rebuilding of an earthquake-proof structure. The downtown area suffered extensive damage. Worship service were held first in nearby Alameda Park, then in the social hall, while reconstruction proceeded. Dr. Clarence A. Spaulding led the congregation during those traumatic times. The Rev. Robert McLean accepted the call to our church in 1932 and remained until 1943. Following the death of his wife, Clara, the congregation built a small chapel in her memory. The stained-glass windows of that chapel have been installed in the present campus in the Anderson Lounge area. The nation was at war during those days and members channeled time and effort in support of families affected by World War II. It was the busiest of times when the Rev. Joseph M. Ewing(1943-1955) answered the call to First Presbyterian Church. Plans were underway for a fitting celebration of the Diamond Jubilee. The year 1944 was memorable. The church mortgage was burned, and there were special speakers and special music. Joe Watson wrote and directed a historical pageant. During this time the Christian Education Building was built (plans had been deferred since the 1925 earthquake). Also the sanctuary was refurbished. Under the leadership of the Rev. Lawrence E. Fisher(1955-1980) church life expanded with varied activities and concerns. Outreach extended as far afield as Alaska. Affairs of the secular world impinged on church life! The John Birch Society launched an attack that the church confronted and repelled. Cubans seeking refuge from political turmoil in their homeland found hospitality within our church facility. To celebrate the Centennial of our founding, there were picnics, banquets, a living tableau and a play. A few years into his pastorate, Dr. Fisher and the congregation faced the need for a new church building. The structure on Anapamu Street did not meet the updated standards of earthquake safety, and the City of Santa Barbara expected to take steps to acquire some of the church property for a parking lot. Time again to launch the arduous task of finding a new site, raising funds, designing, constructing and furnishing a new church building. On December 23, 1973, members marched from the downtown church to the beautiful new sanctuary at State Street and Constance Avenue with its overhead Celtic Cross, the Christ Risen and “jewel” windows in the sanctuary and narthex, the four manual Casavant pipe organ in the choir loft and an antiphonal organ in the balcony. By the end of December 1975 the building program was free of debt. Dr. Fred Christian, interim pastor during 1980-1981, set up the five commissions which operated under the Session’s direction to govern our church. He and his wife, Eva, also began the International Gift Sale, which continued yearly for about ten years. People in the mission fields received thousands of dollars as a result of this huge, volunteer effort.

Through the years our church has provided exceptional leaders for music programs. Singing opportunities have existed for all ages. In 1976 handbells were purchased for bell choirs. Many community groups use our facilities for musical presentations. Strong Christian education and youth groups throughout our years of existence have led many of our young people into Christian service. Though we no longer sponsor a Boy Scout troop, there are many who remember fondly the activities and discipline associated with the leaders – especially down in the basement of the Anapamu Street church site. Recent years have brought new life to the lower patio, with the addition of a full-time Infant Day Care Center and a Children’s’ Center (a Christian preschool) using our facilities. Saturday mornings the FISH class for developmentally disabled adults offers an opportunity for Bible study and songs to participants from the community. In 1981 the congregation called the Rev. Robert Pryor. Having served as a missionary in the Middle East for many years, he brought a profound knowledge of that area with him. His knowledge of that volatile part of the world is always current, as he returned frequently to study and to lead tour groups. Under Rev. Pryor’s leadership, the congregation developed and completed extensive building plans, which included the Christian Fellowship Hall, a large commercial kitchen, additional covered parking on the lower level, The Garden Room for multi-purposes, an elevator, and the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. The latter was built with matching funds from a church couple in memory of their daughter. Also notable additions are the rock walls built on the grounds by specially trained stone workers. The new buildings were dedicated on February 14, 1999 and was awarded the Presidential Award from Santa Barbara Beautiful in 2000. Some of the building features can be seen on the Building Facilities Page. The building projects could not have been completed so successfully had not a retired contractor, Ron Hinn, a member of the congregation, volunteered to oversee and work with the builder. Ron implemented many money saving ideas and saw the completion of the work just prior to his untimely death. The many hours he devoted to the project were much appreciated by workmen, staff and congregation members. With the resignation of Rev. Pryor in 1999, Dr. Gary Demarest and then Dr. Jim Witty served as interim pastors for three years. Church finances were stabilized and new teams formed under the responsibility of the governing body of the Session. A Health Cabinet Ministry provided opportunities to participate in Blood Bank activities, Alzheimer Walk, Blood Pressure monthly screenings, flu shots annually, exercise classes, plus various speakers and Sunday morning classes pertaining to health and nutrition. Sharon Troll, Parish Nurse, coordinates activities. Other new activities offered to members and friends are weekly Senior Activities programs on Fridays, the Front Porch College Group, an early morning communion service each Sunday and a popular contemporary worship service, led by Mike Willbanks, Assistant to the Pastor. Deacons and Prayer Teams continue to minister to those in need, but additional help and concern is offered on a short term basis by a Care and Nurture Ministry. The Infant and Children’s Center has been reorganized under Director Helen Pasley. The 1980s and 1990s have brought more community involvement by our congregations: help with the homeless and Transition House, assistance to the Salvation Army, and cooperation with the Red Cross in setting up our campus for an emergency shelter. We also open our facilities to nonprofit and self-help organizations. The church was blessed to have Dr. Emma Lou Diemer as our organist for a number of years. She composed various choir, solo and organ music, all of which we enjoyed during her tenure with us. Julie Neufeld, Director of Music, retire after 18 years. We are grateful for her gifts of many talents, not only in the musical field, but her ability to work with children and to create colorful banners for our sanctuary. The Flower Guild and Craft Group have enlisted more volunteers who give their talents to the congregation and church campus. The Rev. Peter Buehler arrives to begin a new chapter at First Presbyterian on August 18, 2002. The Rev. Judith Muller continues to serve us well as Associate Pastor. The faith of the four original church congregations is inspiring us today to go forward in His name. What should we be planning for the future?

Adapted by Junemarie Reynolds and Virginia Chennell from the writings of J. David Watson and Julie Nelson.