San Gabriel’s Church of Our Saviour Celebrates its 150th Anniversary
By Jane Magwood
As San Gabriel’s Church of Our Saviour celebrates its 150th Anniversary this year, its origins can be traced back to the dream of a Providence Rhode Island woman named Mrs. Frances Vinton who, in 1859, envisioned a time when “the Glory of God might be told from sea to sea.” That vision ultimately led to the erection of an Episcopal church in Providence, Rhode Island, another in Clermont, Iowa, and culminated in San Gabriel California with the institution of Church of Our Saviour.
The path that led to this church encompasses some of the most prominent figures of early Southern California history, most notably the family of Don Benito Wilson. A Sunday School known as the Los Angeles Sabbath school was represented in the 4th of July parade included a banner made from the wedding dress of Mrs. Benjamin D. Wilson, wife of Don Benito.
Wilson marked the determination of a small group of settlers to practice their religious beliefs. By 1864, under the leadership of Rev. Mr. Birdsell and the Rev. Mr. C.F. Loop, the Sunday School started to hold meetings in a little school house on Del Mar Avenue. Early attendees included Annie and Ruth Wilson, daughters of Don Benito Wilson.
The destiny of this small Sunday School converged with Mrs. Vinton’s dream when in 1867, she sent a sum of $2,500 via Wells Fargo stage coach to the bishop of the Los Angeles Dioceses. The funds were used to acquire a parcel of land just north of Roses Road, where the Rev. DR. Henry Messenger built a small house from which he farmed the property, as well as conducted Sunday Services and Sunday School. With the founding of this small church and congregations, Mrs. Vinton’s vision became a reality.
Between 1868 and 1869, Dr. Messenger, honoring the request of Mrs. Vinton, subdivided the two-acre parcel of land and constructed a church. Built of adobe bricks made from the soil of Don Benito’s property, the first Protestant Church in San Gabriel held regular services. As only cloth covered the window openings, the congregation would still meet at Dr. Messenger’s home when it rained or was cold.
As the only Protestant Church in the Valley, non-Roman Catholics sought out the Church in times of need. Dr. Messenger began using a parcel of land to the west of the church for burials. In 1875, he sold the land to the newly formed San Gabriel Cemetery Association. Today, this historic cemetery still serves the community and contains the gravesites of many of the original settlers in the area. Visitors to the cemetery can see the resting places of Don Benito Wilson’s family, including a plaque, honoring his grandson, General George S. Patton.
By 1879, a rectory for the new church had been built, but financial problems began to confront the small congregation, creating some bleak times including a turnover in rectors. From 1880 through 1892, a new rector, Rev. Dr. Archibald G.L. Trew was called to serve the parish. Hopelessly ill with tuberculosis, Dr. Trew traveled by train from Quebec to San Gabriel. Though he was not expected to live, Dr. Trew regained his health and went on to restore the parish and place it on an even keel.
By the time, he delivered his farewell sermon in 1892, Church of Our Saviour was debt-free and had a $30,000 endowment. Although the parish remained healthy for some time, by 1912 the church membership had dwindled to only 22 communicants, only 12 of whom were active. It had begun to look as if Mrs. Vinton’s dream was in jeopardy. Two of the three churches she had commissioned were now on the retired list. Would Church of Our Saviour be next?
However, the few dedicated members were determined to save the little church. Parish member, Erasmus Wilson bought the land where the old rectory stood, build a new rectory, and moved the Parish Hall alongside the church. It was then that the Vestry called Rev. John Atwill to begin a rectorship that would last for 30 years and rejuvenate the church and its mission. Church membership grew and hitching posts were added to accommodate the overflow of people attending services.
A period of expansion took place throughout the 1920’s. The Sanctuary increased in size, its capacity growing from 90 to 250. The church continued to grow following Rev. Atwill’s retirement. By the 1940’, near the end of World War II, General George S. Patton returned to the United States and visited the church where he had worshiped as a child. Throughout the Church’s existence, the Patton family maintained their membership and commitment to the Church of Our Saviour.
Throughout the 50’s and 60’s the church continued to grow, necessitating an enlargement of the church itself. A new chancel and nave were build, seamlessly connecting the original nave and bell tower to the old sanctuary. The project completed in 1959, was so well conceived that it is hard to imagine that the new sanctuary was not the original design. Visitors to the church today would find it difficult to believe the small, original church had been incorporated into the more spacious design.
Many aspects of the Church of Our Saviour’s history can be found in the church’s 32 stained glass windows. Representation of the early founders, to a window commemorating the service of General Patton offer a visual record of the church’s history. These beautiful stained glass windows, most of which are the creation of both the famous Judson and Willet studios, express an intersection of art and history. Two additional church windows were fabricated by Tiffany.
While Church of Our Saviour retains its place in San Gabriel history, its mission if focused very much in the present. What began as a senior meals program at the Immanuel Church in El Monte, grew into Our Saviour Center and the Dorris Dann Kids Campus, which today both help over 10,000 people each month providing employment assistance, youth programs, and community assistance. In 1991, the Cleaver Wellness Clinic was established to meet the basic health needs of the local community. It is a certainty that Mrs. Vinton would be well pleased.