The roots of the United Methodist Church in Santa Clara go back 170 years to 1846, the year that the United States declared war on Mexico over land disputes in Texas and California. That same year, a group of Methodists was among a party of 57 settlers who had followed the Oregon Trail west to Santa Clara.
Arriving in October, the settlers were housed in adobe buildings belonging to Mission Santa Clara, which was then part of a U.S. Military post in Mexican territory. That November, at the adobe home of Methodist William Campbell, lay preacher Adna Hecox gave the first protestant sermon of record in what is now Santa Clara, California, thus scattering the first seeds of Methodism in the Mission City.
Santa Clara United Methodist Church (SCUMC) celebrated its 170-year history June 12 at its Sunday worship service, followed by a lunch reception in its fellowship hall. SCUMC Pastor Vathanak Heang welcomed to the pulpit the Rev. Staci Current, District Superintendent for the El Camino Real District of the United Methodist Church.
The celebration was tempered by the mass shooting by a lone terrorist that had taken place in Orlando, Florida, in the early hours of that Sunday morning. Current spoke of the need to be immovable in the faith as she addressed about 50 worshipers.
“Life jades us and leaves us wondering how we keep track of all the senseless things,” said Current. “…We make it through this world by faith. By faith we are saved.”
“You have to have the kind of faith that breaks boundaries and crushes comfort zones….You need to believe no matter what that God loves you and you have a right to be in the room,” she said.
SCUMC Board President Lisa Hatchett presented an overview of the history of the church–a diverse, multi-generational congregation of about 75. SCUMC is now housed in its fourth building, dedicated in 1965. In 1852, an adobe church built from walls of Mission Santa Clara was its first house of worship.
The adobe building was replaced in 1867 by the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church, a brick American Gothic building destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The large bell from its 150-foot steeple survived and is displayed on the present church grounds.
In 1913, a wood-framed stucco church with eight stained glass windows was completed. The windows are incorporated in the present building at 1700 Lincoln St., across from Santa Clara City Hall.
In 1985, Bethel Korean United Methodist Church began to share the SCUMC facilities and the cost of maintenance and operation, an arrangement formalized legally in 2001.
In the preface to “The Methodist Church, 160 Years in Santa Clara California,” published in 2006 to commemorate that milestone, the late author Earl Printz wrote, “This is not the story of a church building; it is, rather, the account of continuous Methodist fellowship, and the people in it, which has persisted in the same location through difficult times, economic hardships, civil war, world wars, depressions and religious controversies.”
Without exception, SCUMC members attending the 170th celebration commented on the fellowship and friendliness that drew them to the church and holds them there.
“It’s a small but very giving and caring congregation. We really are a big family,” said Hatchett.
“The people have always been so welcoming. It’s just home,” said member Berta Schenaker. “We have a very energetic young pastor.” Pastor Heang, who came to the U.S. from Cambodia in 2008, has led the congregation since 2014.
“This is a loving community. We love you as you are–just like God loves you as you are,” said Heang, whose second child was baptized by Current during the worship service. “This is an inclusive congregation and wants to be vital to the community.” It already is.
After establishing a Santa Clara Methodist Retirement Foundation in 1965, SCUMC in 1972 built Liberty Tower, a retirement facility on the site of the old adobe church. Then in 1979, it built Wesley Manor adjacent to Campbell Methodist Church.
As the church looks to the future, it considers adding senior housing to its four-acre campus, upgrading the kitchen to feed the community, providing laundry and showers to the needy and offering additional programs for neighborhood children.
“I like coming to church because I have friends to play with at Sunday school,” said five-year-old Ishaan Mittal, one of the neighborhood children.
“We’re a very friendly church, always wanting to help others,” said Selma Chung. It was a sentiment echoed by fellow members Francis Roberts, Ruth Piazza and Lemuel De Guzman.
“It is that continuous fellowship over time in the same place which connects the present Santa Clara United Methodist Church with the beginning in 1846. It is a tale of hardship, tragedy, perseverance, courage and hard work by men and women of faith and miracles wrought by Divine Providence,” wrote Printz.
That tale of faith and hard work continues as SCUMC looks forward to its 175th celebration in 2021.