115 Years of Witness in the Coachella Valley

Part 1 

Nov. 30, 2017, marks the 115th anniversary of the chartering of the Presbyterian Church of Coachella, the predecessor of St. Andrew Community Presbyterian Church. St. Andrew church stands as a silent tribute to a small, courageous band of men and women who, in 1902 said, “This valley needs a church.” 

At that time, Coachella was the center of population and activity in this sparsely settled valley. Roads were sandy stretches through the dunes, neighbors few and far between, telephones unknown, and automobiles a novelty. But, there was enthusiasm to bridge the distances and determination to further God’s Kingdom and there was Faith - faith that their dream of a church home in this hot, dusty valley would be possible with God’s help.

The first religious services were held in a store building on Front Street (now Grapefruit Boulevard), and in homes (often tents). Sunday School was held in the home of Susan McDonald. Most of the original group were Methodists, but the Methodist Conference didn’t think much of the prospects for a viable church in this desert area and would only send a minister if the church would be self-supporting.

In 1902 Los Angeles Presbytery had just sponsored the formation of Riverside Presbytery and the new presbytery had made, as one of its first actions, the decision to sponsor a Mission church in the Coachella Valley. The local group was jubilant. On Nov. 30, 1902, Dr. W.B. Noble, Synod Missionary, presided at the formal organization of the Presbyterian Church of Coachella, with 18 charter members. It was the first main-line Protestant church in the valley. The first pastor was the Reverend Albert Dilworth of Palestine, Ohio.  After him, each minister, sent out by the Board of Missions, stayed only one year. The dust, unending summer heat and primitive living conditions were too much for them.

The church met for services in the school, a wooden structure designed and built by one of the charter members, Charles McDonald. In 1908 the first church building was erected at the corner of Seventh and Orchard Streets. It occupied the lawn area in front of the second building (which is now the Coachella City Library). Fire, the scourge of all of the valley’s early towns, destroyed that building and it was rebuilt on the back of the same lot.

On March 3, 1918, the congregation voted to “cut loose from the Home Missionary Board and try to carry our own costs of minister’s salary and church work. To do this will call for the active support of all those who are interested in the maintenance of the work done by the Coachella Church.” It was a great leap of faith.

The story of how this original church became St. Andrew church will be told in subsequent articles. 

Part 2

Since it’s organization in 1902, the congregation met for a number of years in the Coachella Elementary School building, just across the street from property they acquired for the first church building at the corner of Seventh and Orchard Streets.

That building was erected in 1908 and a manse was built in 1917. Confident that they could be an independent church, on March 3, 1918, the congregation voted to “cut loose from the Home Missionary Board” It was an act of Faith to assume the responsibility of building maintenance, the pastor’s salary and missionary work.

In 1928 the second church building was constructed behind the first church It was meant to be used for Sunday School and as an auditorium and recreation area. Reading between the lines, the Great Depression of the 1930s probably discouraged further improvements to the church plant. The planned sanctuary on the corner was never built. The original building was used by an Hispanic congregation to whom the building was offered, if funds could be found to move it. This never happened and the building was demolished in 1942.

The main auditorium of the new building was used as a sanctuary, with several modifications, until the congregation moved to Indio in 1980. The Westerfield Annex was added in 1947. A Narthex was added and the main entrance was moved to the north end of the building. In 1953 a bell tower was added to hold the bell cast in Germany and given to the church by Bill and Olga Kersteiner. That same bell now hangs in the bell tower at St. Andrew church in Indio. In 1956 an educational wing, remodeled kitchen, parlor and church offices were added. The sanctuary was refurbished and pews purchased to replace the black folding chairs. The Stained-Glass window (which now is a focal point in the St. Andrew sanctuary) was added in 1964.

During this time period, church news made the local papers weekly.  The addition of air conditioning to the sanctuary was noted in the local paper and folks were invited to enjoy it. The Coachella church was famous for its “Oyster Suppers”. Perhaps the novelty of a seafood dinner in the desert added to their popularity. On one occasion bees nested in the high ceiling and church-goers were treated to sweet, sticky honey falling during the sermon. It was no small task to remove the bees!

The 50s, 60s and 70s were years of caring for and nurturing the Baby Boomer generation. Young parents brought children to fill a vibrant Sunday School. What came next will be featured in the next chapter of the story.

Part 3

When the Presbyterian Church of Coachella Valley was organized in 1902, the central location of the town of Coachella made it the logical place to locate the church.

Agriculture was the principal economic activity and Coachella had shipping facilities available to farmers. Coachella’s first name was Woodspur, chosen because the railroad had built a “spur” line to enable them to take on mesquite wood needed for their steam engines’ fires. As the town grew, its early residents thought Woodspur wasn’t a very appealing name, so they voted to change it to Coachella. It was a “made-up” name, closely related to conchilla (little shell) and Cahuilla (the local Indian tribe).

The railroad was the principal link between early towns and they all started along its length. Only Palm Springs started in the western valley and there were no cross-valley roads through the sand dunes, so Palm Springs’ history is more oriented toward Los Angeles. Unpaved Hwy 111 was the only connection between the two settled areas. After 1950, when supplementary water from the Colorado River was delivered to the east valley via the Coachella Branch of the All-American Canal, there was a land boom and Indio, in particular, grew rapidly. Banks chose to loan construction money to home builders in Indio, and with available housing, most new residents settled in Indio. Many members of the Coachella Presbyterian Church came from Indio, but increasingly it was difficult to interest new residents in driving to Coachella for church.

The Coachella church turned its attention to meeting the needs of the town’s growing Hispanic population. They organized Centro Hispano, offering social services, and hired a Hispanic pastor, Rev. Pedro Carranza, to direct it. The programs were well-received, as was a Hispanic pastor, Rev. Fred Venecia, but it became clear that the current local population was largely Roman Catholic or Pentecostal in worship preference, and church membership decreased as members died or moved away, and few new members joined. Financial support for the church’s programs declined.

Both Synod and Riverside Presbytery urged the church to support a New Church Development in Indio. There were no funds from the denomination to relocate. The loyal remnant in Coachella did not want to quit. Happily God provided a way out.

In 1980, the City of Coachella had $350,000 available in Block Grant money, which they proposed to use to purchase the Presbyterian Church property for use by the city as a Senior Center and library. With that money to start with and loans available from the denomination’s New Church Development Fund, the Coachella church saw their way clear to consent to what was for them the move of a nucleus congregation to a new location. It helped that interest rates were in the double digits in the early 80s and the “nest egg” grew as they waited to begin construction on a church in Indio. It also was gratifying to realize that the old facility, which members had worked so hard to build and pay for, would be used to serve the residents of Coachella.