La Verne’s oldest church celebrates city leadership and Hollywood fame.
by Krista Franceschini
photography by Ryan Gann
Just as they did 125 years ago, friends and family gathered March 2012 in support of their Church. And as it was before, it was in celebration and reaffirmation for the future. There was live music from the choir, food, games and fun. In 1887, the expectant mood was probably much the same as a group of Methodists, eking out an existence in the yet unpopulated town, met in a Lordsburg hotel to set the plans for their new church. Survival, perseverance and vision saw the church come to life and, after a location change, become as it is known today as the United Methodist Church located on D Street.
Along with its historic influence in shaping the city, the Church is famous because of the wedding scene in the cult classic “The Graduate.” The Hollywood camera lens has also captured the Church in “Bubble Boy,” “Bill and Ted’s Awesome Adventure” and “Wayne’s World 2.” It is not quiet fame: Time Magazine bestowed honors to the Church for being one of the “2010 Top 10 Movie Locations,” alongside classic film sites such as the Trevi Fountain where “La Dolce Vita” was filmed and Tiffany & Co., where “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was captured. Church officials take the recognition in stride and say tourists from around the world regularly seek out the building as a photo op to re-enact their own graduate scene.
Nevertheless, the United Methodist Church is a landmark in the city of La Verne not only because of the movies filmed there, but because it was established before Lordsburg existed in name. According to Galen Beery, president of the La Verne Historical Society, in 1887 a handful of Methodists met in a hotel on Arrow Highway, called the Pioneer Building. About four months later, a land auction was held to set up the city of Lordsburg. Following, in the early 1890s, a wooden church was built on Third and F streets. In 1911, with high expectations, the Church was remodeled to accommodate its ever-growing population. The new and improved building held 600 people. With the increase in population after World War II, the United Methodist Church, thanks to a gracious contribution from orange rancher W. Scott Romick and his wife, moved to the west side of D Street, its present location. On the same property, across from Bonita High School, was a barn built in the early 1900s that the boy scouts took over and have called their troop meeting house ever since.
Don Kendrick, mayor of La Verne, historically was a member of the Methodist Church, attending at the Third and F street location. “A memory I have is Scott would stand on the steps at the front of the Church and give apples to every person in the Church every Christmas Eve; I remember this vividly and fondly,” Kendrick says. “The Methodist Church was the first and oldest church in La Verne; it was here before the Church of the Brethren,” Kendrick says. He returned to the Church during its March celebration to share his memories growing up with the Methodists and their transition to the new location. [When Kendrick married Gaynel Miller, he changed his church affiliation to the La Verne Church of the Brethren.]
Founding benefactor W. Scott Romick has passed into history, but one can see the fruit of his influence. The building has high ceilings and simple décor that sets the tone for a calming place of worship. Clean white walls blend to an enormous arching north facing window that frames the overflowing green beauty of trees that touch the blue sky behind Pastor Marshall as she delivers her sermons. A cross is affixed to window top center and presides over the altar, which is lined in tall white candles that match the pristine white ambiance of the high ceilings juxtaposed against the four walls. The building ambiance projects a wave of peace that seemingly flows over church members as they gather for services. They are friendly and greet newcomers, genuinely happy to see a new face. The Church is searching for new members; those who gather on Sundays average about 20. Still, there is variety in the attendees: young families with children, elderly men and women, all diverse in culture and from different walks of life. The church service feels more like a family gathering than a formal service.
Since June 2009, Pastor Linda Marshall has led as the fourth woman pastor at the La Verne United Methodist Church. She proudly says that 28 years ago she was the 75th woman in Southern California to be ordained to the larger denomination. “There has been a sociologically enormous change in 30 years, ironically around the time of “The Graduate,” Marshall says. Women pastors are now part of the norm in the Church. Pastor Marshall says she eats, sleeps and breathes for the United Methodist Church. Her husband is pastor at a Walnut Methodist Church.
The church offers multiple community services that include the Wesleyan Preschool, Boy Scout Troop 411, outreach projects and volunteer work with Inland Valley Hope Partners, Sowing Seeds For Life and Our House Shelter. The oldest sponsored relationship is with Boy Scout Troop 411, which has been meeting in the Church barn since its 1950 era construction. “One of the most significant parts of the Church is the Boy Scout troop. The troop has about 90 boys and 25 uniform assistant scout masters,” says Kendrick. “It is an unbelievable program for young boys.” He was part of the Boy Scout troop from 1959 until he left, at age 18, for the Navy in 1968.
Kendrick remembers being the first Boy Scout to walk in the barn during early church construction. He became junior assistant scoutmaster prior to the Navy and returned to the scout house in the late 1970s, to become scoutmaster in the early 1980s. Kendrick is now proud to be a part of each Eagle Scout Board of Review. Marsha Townsend is the current scoutmaster, a post she has held for 20 years. “The Church should be very proud of the contribution it is providing this city with the outstanding young men who are coming out of this scouting program,” he says.
The Methodists are a big part of city Fourth of July activities. In the morning, the Boy Scouts serve more than 1,200 pancake breakfasts; parade horses are staged on the Church lot. Church members begin their traditional barbecue when the parade marches by. Turkeys, wrapped in brown paper and cinched in twine are deep fried in six-foot deep barbecue pits. At parade end, people gather on the Church grounds to watch the night sky light up with fireworks after a fun-filled day.
Pastor Linda Marshall looks to the future and the sustainability of the Church through reaching out to the youth of La Verne and to University of La Verne students. Vicky Campos, a La Verne sophomore, underscores the pastor’s vision to connect. “There are many youth events like volleyball and a luau that are specifically for youth involvement. Pastor Marshall has told me to even bring friends to the service or to the events.” Campos is an active member of the Church choir. She became a part of the United Methodist Church during the height of its 125-year celebration. “It was really big; that’s when the choir was the biggest. There was energy, a lot of enthusiasm, people were happy the Church had been around for so long. The Methodist Church does much for its constituents 125 years counting by providing opportunities for them to reconnect and reaffirm their faith, beliefs and love.”
Celebrating the years
The 125-year celebration reached its height March 2012; yet, Pastor Linda Marshall explains that the celebration is on-going. “The prelude was the celebration of the 2011, 50th anniversary of the [new] building, held Valentine’s Day weekend.” Then, a homecoming for brides and grooms led to a reaffirmation of vows and the playing of the newlywed game, “which was really fun for the children to watch.” That day, Pastor Marshall punctuated her sermon with a tie in to “The Graduate”: “What is happily ever after?” The movie is always in the background here.