While religion may not be the first thing that the California Gold Rush brings to mind, churches were established soon after prospectors arrived in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
On Sunday, the Union Congregational Church in Angels Camp will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a special worship service at 10 a.m., followed by a catered community luncheon. The entire community has been invited to participate, and the Mountain Melody Women’s Chorus of Calaveras County will perform.
Union Congregational Church Rev. Elizabeth Armstrong spoke with the Enterprise on the church’s sesquincentennial of service.
“That’s a lot of years. I’m just completing my sixth year here,” she said. “It means a lot. This church has been involved in the community from the very beginning, from the Gold Rush days, so it’s kind of an awesome thing to contemplate how many years of growth and change and different pastors. I’m honored to be the one here on the 150th anniversary.”
Armstrong was a latecomer to the ministry, working for years as an emergency room nurse at the hospitals in San Andreas and Sonora before going to seminary and getting ordained in 2013. She has lived in Murphys since 1973.
Churches played an important role in early California history, just as they continue to play an important role in communities today, Armstrong said.
“If you know very much about the history of the Gold Rush days, it was a pretty wild time. And it was probably a time no different than now, but in a different way, when a community interested in the teachings of Jesus Christ reached out to each other with love and kindness,” she said. “It’s always a good thing to establish in a community, so I think that that was a real important time as all times have been to continue this, and continue the importance of not just church for the deepening of one’s own religious commitment to God, but the church in the sense of one’s responsibility to give and receive from a community of like-minded people.”
In honor of the anniversary, a brief history of the church was drawn up by church members.
Beginning in the 1850s, the Congregational Home Mission Board expressed interest in establishing parishes in the Gold Country. In 1869, Rev. John W. Brier met with local residents and established the Union Church.
Reverends of the early church often served surrounding communities as well. While Rev. Dennis Goodsell preached at the First Congregational Church of Murphys and lived in its parsonage, he was known for holding services on Saturday evenings in Copperopolis, and afterward riding to the Union Church to stable his horse and sleep on one of the pews in order to preside over Sunday morning services in Angels Camp.
The present church building on South Main Street was constructed in 1904, four years after a reorganization of the church. It was built with the help of a $455 loan from the national office of Congregationalists with funds left over from the legal defense of the Amistad slaves.
For many years, the Union Congregational Church was the only Protestant church in Angels Camp.
Since the beginning, women have played an important role in the church, even visiting homes and businesses to collect dues until 1914.
Built upon the land of a former public cemetery, the church relocated the graves and remains on the property to the Altaville Cemetery in 1915. However, a few gravestones still remain in the churchyard.
In 1916, the bell from the original church was moved to the belfry of the new building, where it continues to be used today.
When the old church building was demolished in the 1920s, some of the material was salvaged to build Pioneer Hall next to the church.
In 1927, Rev. Cookman established the first public library in town, filling shelves in Pioneer Hall with donated books and enlisting volunteer staff. The library remained open until the Calaveras County Library was established years later.
During the ’20s and ’30s, many improvements were made to the property, and the church raised funds for war victims and for the building of Congregational Camp Cazadero.
The church contributed to the War Emergency Fund during the 1940s, and became financially self-supporting in 1949.
Following World War II, social clubs were organized and a youth recreation center was built.
During the 1950s, Friendship Hall was constructed behind the church to replace Pioneer Hall as a new venue for social gatherings.
In these years, the Fricot Ranch School for Boys became part of the church’s ministry, and the congregation began holding a joint Easter Sunrise Service with the Murphys church at Buena Vista Cemetery.
The Congregational/Christian churches decided to join with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957, forming a new denomination called the United Church of Christ. Since then, the Union church has been known as the Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.
Membership peaked at 115 during these years, with 85 students in Sunday school and a large youth program. In 1963, the church built the Sunshine Room and a pastor’s study and office at the end of Friendship Hall to meet the need for more space.
During the ’70s and ’80s, the church participated in the United Congregational Church’s (UCC) 1776 Fund Drive to give aid to its six primarily black colleges and assisted in the UCC mission in Zimbabwe.
In the ’90s, Rev. John Anderson played a leading role in starting the Habitat for Humanity program in Calaveras County.
From 2008 to 2011, the church sponsored a hot meals program to feed local residents in need in the midst of economic crisis.
In 2009, the church voted to become an Open and Affirming parish, approving a statement that reads: “Union Congregational Church/UCC resolves that we are an Open and Affirming congregation whose primary purpose is to proclaim and extend God’s extravagant welcome to all people. We welcome and accept all people regardless of race, sex, nationality, physical disability, marital status, mental ability, economic status or sexual orientation. We believe Jesus’ teaching that the greatest commandments are to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Armstrong said that the church’s theology was sometimes misconstrued.
“That we are open and affirming and welcoming does not mean that we are the church of ‘anything goes’ … We have a theology, we have a Christian belief, and we do teach that,” she said. “We support anyone who wants to come here and reach inside to find their own faith … and also to participate in Christian community and offer skills and talents and questions. We really, really welcome questions … We welcome a challenge; we welcome seekers.”
The church continues to develop and administer programs for social justice and community outreach, which include hosting 12-step program meetings for seven different groups, supporting the Resource Connection and providing aid to homeless residents. Services are held every Sunday at 10 a.m.
“A feeling of closeness and caring permeates our church family as we work together in church and community,” a statement from the church reads. “By the grace of God, we trust it will grow and continue in the next 150 years.”