San Francisco Chronicle: Earthquake fears threaten California’s oldest Episcopal church

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Trinity Episcopal Church, established in 1849 before moving into its current, fortress-like digs on the corner of Gough and Bush streets in 1892, potentially has a seismic safety problem, an official there said.

But here's the real issue: the church doesn't have the funds to find out, or fix it.

As a result, church leaders decided the 350-capacity main sanctuary is going to be mothballed, likely by the end of September. Services are moving to the smaller chapel on the property, a separate building that holds about 75 people.

"What we're trying to avoid is the use of the word closing," interim rector Otis Charles said. "The congregation is alive and functioning."

Read it all.

Update: A chart of some parish statistics is here.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)TEC Parishes* Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryStewardship

28 Comments
Posted May 30, 2009 at 3:55 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. robroy wrote:

The church boasts Tiffany stained glass and a skinner organ. It unfortunately also has Otis Charles as an interim rector. Between Mr Charles and his “husband” have had 5 marriages previously. No small surprise that the attendance has dwindled to about 75. How conveninet that the adjacent chapel can hold 75. Of course, there is no reason that the decline won’t continue. But the expenses of mothballing the church will continue.

May 30, 4:06 pm | [comment link]
2. Jeffersonian wrote:

An earthquake would just finish the job that folks like Andrus, Charles, Griswold and Schori have labored at for decades.  It’s not unlike the mighty oak hit by lightning in “Atlas Shrugged,” which revealed a tree that had been eaten away inside, leaving little but the husk.

May 30, 4:43 pm | [comment link]
3. KevinBabb wrote:

I feel remarkably naive. I would think that, in a city as large and oft-visited as SF, and as well-known as Grace Cathedral is both in the life of TEC and from an architrectural point of view, the Cathedral would get 75 people on Sunday just from the tourist trade.  The fact that it is down to the membership and attendance of a family- sized parish (if I am remembering the taxonony correctly) is remarkable.

May 30, 5:01 pm | [comment link]
4. Ross wrote:

I don’t know anything about the specifics of Grace Cathedral.  But I have heard that the regular congregrations of cathedrals in general vary widely in size; some are very large, some are fairly small.

A small cathedral congregation doesn’t necessarily indicate an unhealthy church (although it might indicate that, of course); it could just mean that everyone in the area is well-served by healthy parish churches.

As I say, I don’t which applies to Grace Cathedral.

May 30, 5:20 pm | [comment link]
5. Chris wrote:

more (unfortunate) symbolism.

May 30, 6:18 pm | [comment link]
6. Fr. Dale wrote:

Folks #3 & #4,
1. I believe you are confusing Trinity Episcopal Church with Grace Cathedral.
2. We had a similar problem in Fresno with the administration building at City College. Even with much less probability of an earthquake in Central California, the Administration building had been fenced off for many years. Various fund raising campaigns to retrofit the building were mounted as the costs of fixing it went up. It is finally being renovated and retrofitted for earthquake worthiness at the cost of about 100 million dollars. It probably would have been cheaper to raze the building and start over.

May 30, 6:24 pm | [comment link]
7. Ralph wrote:

The Skinner organ at Trinity is a landmark instrument, noteworthy because many Skinners have been vandalized by modern organ builders trying to “improve” the sound. This one is in good original condition.

A self-defiled priest, defiling a parish in a defiled diocese overseen by a defiled bishop.
http://www.lgbtran.org/Profile.aspx?ID=129

And they have a very special ministry to “marginalized” Roman Catholics:
http://www.sftrinity.org/html/sophia.htm

Oh, and you can have a “wedding” any way you want it:
http://www.sftrinity.org/html/weddings.htm

Yowsers. Maybe the diocese can sell it to a group of Christians who would use it to worship God.

May 30, 7:53 pm | [comment link]
8. Jeffersonian wrote:

One has to look at the parish statistics Dr. Harmon linked and wonder about the future of TEC.  If a front-to-back, side-to-side, top-to-bottom gay-friendly parish with a gay rector and gayish bishop is tanking like this in San Francisco, where do they think one will flourish?

May 30, 8:38 pm | [comment link]
9. WestJ wrote:

Very sad, it looks like a beautiful building.
I am reminded of “whitewashed sepulchers”.

May 30, 9:31 pm | [comment link]
10. Words Matter wrote:

For my money, they can have those marginalized Catholics.

But look beyond the self-promotion:

From the Trinity website:

http://www.sftrinity.org/html/sophia.htm

Sophia in Trinity is an inclusive community welcoming all those on the margins and especially those marginalized by the Roman Catholic Church: LGBT people, those that are divorced, remarried, those who witness to reproductive rights, all seeking justice and equality and the integrity of creation.

From here:

http://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/diocese/dsnfr.html

The Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco has about 425,000 registered Catholics. With average Sunday attendance at probably 40% or less (that’s a national number, not local), one might assume at least a quarter million “marginalized” Catholics, many of whom probably fit the list above.  By my count, Sophia has attracted maybe 20 souls, including the women at the altar.  Most are middle-aged baby boomers, all are white.  So add that to the general failure of the lesbigay claims noted by Jeffersonian.

The good part is the clear witness as to what “inclusive” really means.

May 30, 9:47 pm | [comment link]
11. nwlayman wrote:

Sigh.  What a sad thing, when believers leave and there’s nothing but a pretty building.  More of what the old Bishop of California, James Pike, used to call “Excess baggage”—along with the Trinity.  Parishes like this are actually worth alot more dead than alive; what does dirt in SF go for these days?  How much does the diocese make off that congregation a year?  No brainer.  Why, it doesn’t even have room for a proper labyrinth, does it?  The organ and windows will bring in some big cash on ebay.

May 30, 10:25 pm | [comment link]
12. robroy wrote:

Ouch, Jeffersonian.

The TEClub guts its foundations to pander to a small segment of the population, most of whom don’t want anything to do with organized religion. The result? Sadly predictable. A work of art/beautiful building is squandered.

Gene Robinson stated that “countless” people would replace those that flee the Episcopal denomination. But here we have the gay-friendliest church in the heart of San Francisco with Tiffany stained glass windows and a Skinner organ and all it can muster is a pitiful 70 parishioners a week? Make the church “inclusive” and it seems no one wants to come. The diocese can’t fork over $300 thousand for a priceless treasure? Pathetic.

Theological bankruptcy quickly leads to financial bankruptcy.

May 30, 10:51 pm | [comment link]
13. KevinBabb wrote:

#10: As a REAL middle-aged person (46 y/o), and on behalf of my generation, I resent your characterization of the folks pictured on the Sophia page as “middle-aged.”  I’ll wager my pink Izod-LaCoste shirt with the turned up collar that there’s not one person pictured who hasn’t received his/her AARP card.  Those of us who are currently “middle-aged” spent our high school years with disco and Ronald Reagan (may he rest in peace and rise in glory). That bunch reminds me more of patchouli and draft card burning.

May 30, 11:54 pm | [comment link]
14. John Wilkins wrote:

Hm - the problem isn’t one of theology, it is one of stewardship.  There is enough money in that neighborhood to fund the church, and then some.

Liberals have bought into the religion of more, just like everyone else.  It is true, if they really believed in what they said, they could raise the money.  They tend to give less than conservatives.  Alas.  Easier to spend money on good food than support the church.

May 31, 1:41 am | [comment link]
15. catherine wrote:

I followed the link #7 gave and read Mr. Charles’ bio on integrity’s website.  I was intrigued by the 2nd to last sentence in the bio which reads: “Charles is currently working on his memoirs and editing a collection of personal reflections on the contribution of entheogens as an opening to mystical experience.”
Here’s how wikipedia defines the word “entheogens”:
An entheogen (“creates god within,” en- “in, within,” theo- “god, divine,” -gen “creates, generates”), in the strictest sense, is a psychoactive substance used in a religious or shamanic context. Historically, entheogens are derived primarily from plant sources and have been used in a variety of traditional religious contexts. With the advent of organic chemistry, there now exist many synthetic substances with similar properties.
More broadly, the term entheogen is used to refer to such substances when used for their religious or spiritual effects, whether or not in a formal religious or traditional structure. This terminology is often chosen to contrast with recreational use of the same substances. These spiritual effects have been demonstrated in peer-reviewed studies, though research remains difficult due to ongoing drug prohibition….Chemicals used today as entheogens, whether in pure form or as plant-derived substances, include cannabis, mescaline, DMT, LSD, psilocin, psilocybin, ibogaine, and salvinorin A.”
So Episcopal bishops can not only live in gay relationships, but can also use drugs as a pathway to god?

May 31, 6:49 am | [comment link]
16. Katherine wrote:

Yup, catherine, they can do pretty much anything except uphold Scripture and Tradition, in which case, they’re in trouble.

May 31, 7:40 am | [comment link]
17. Fr. Dale wrote:

When I picture a congregation like this it seems like a group of folks that our Lord would hang with and minister to. The question in my mind however is, “Are the parishoners being asked to submit to the tranformative power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or are they simply being welcomed ‘as is’ and allowed to stay ‘as is’ “? It would be interesting to hear or read the sermons delivered from this pulpit. One thing that has always impressed me about the color of the doors on the typical Episcopal church is they are red. It signifies the shed blood of Christ through which we enter into the church. When a post mortem analysis is performed on TEC it will be a loss of the connection between vision and mission. Unless the great commandment is combined with the great commission the church will devolve into a soup kitchen with a pulpit.

May 31, 8:05 am | [comment link]
18. Terry Tee wrote:

Kevin # 13 - as a 62-year-old, I can tell you that, mysteriously, the upper limit of middle-aged seems to increase with every passing year.  Or at least, so I have come to believe.  Elderly seems as far off as ever.

May 31, 9:38 am | [comment link]
19. Katherine wrote:

Right, Terry Tee.  Sixty is the new forty.  Or, old is by definition at least ten years older than I am, and I’m sticking with that one for two more decades, God willing.

May 31, 10:07 am | [comment link]
20. Words Matter wrote:

Dcn Dale - not only the sophia pictures, but the main page pictures shows a bunch of middle-class, middled aged (peace, KevinBabb!) white folks. Nothing wrong with that - I’m middle-class, middle age, and white myself. But we aren’t the marginalized of this society. 

I agree with the rest of your comment, though.  They do have something called a “Step Mass” based on the 12 Steps of Recovery. That actually sounds interesting.

May 31, 10:16 am | [comment link]
21. Fr. Dale wrote:

Terry Tee and Katherine,
That all sounds good unless you have a way to measure yourself against yourself. I qualified for the Boston Marathon at age 50 with a 3:29 Marathon. At 64 I was lucky to finish the marathon under the cut off time. I’m still doing it but a lot slower in all aspects of performance not just running. I recently was picking up something at a loading dock and the warehouseman told his assistant to give the package to the old guy over there. That was me. Stories need more context as you age and Ibuprofen is referred to at my house as vitamin “I”. Blessings

May 31, 10:47 am | [comment link]
22. Daniel271 wrote:

What is surprising about this is how long it took to reach this decision.  The inevitability of this closure is obvious to anyone familiar with the geography of San Francisco… quite apart from the demographics of generally declining church attendance.  (1)The law requires that publicly used unreinforced masonry buildings in the city undergo seismic retrofit.  The cost for this at the nearby and similarly sized Old St. Mary’s (Catholic) is now at $12 million.  (2) This church is in an area that was overbuilt with Episcopal churches a century ago.  Another historic Episcopal church is 5 blocks away and Grace Cathedral is 7 blocks away.  You do the math.

May 31, 12:52 pm | [comment link]
23. robroy wrote:

Daniel, thanks for the geographic info. As I said in the comment section in the article, sell the church for a $1 to a denomination that isn’t tanking and can fix it up. To board up a the church and its Tiffany windows and incredible organ is a crime.

May 31, 3:07 pm | [comment link]
24. Ralph wrote:

#15 writes, “So Episcopal bishops can not only live in gay relationships, but can also use drugs as a pathway to god?”

I’m going to try to be very careful in saying this.

Certain well-known drugs will almost completely guarantee mystical experiences every time they’re used. However, there are high spiritual places, and there are low ones. In the low places, there are some entities who are clearly evil (the so-called bad trip), and others who can pretend to be high spiritual beings. With drugs, it’s possible to hook up with low life who look, act, and speak like the deity of one’s spiritual fantasies.

I’m not aware of any way, drugs or otherwise, for a self-avowed, practicing and unrepentant homosexual to reach the high places. It’s hard enough for someone who repents of sin and tries to avoid defilement.

It seems that this man is very dangerous. Like a certain other “bishop,” he no doubt believes that he is in Holy Orders, recognized by God. In fact, by his actions, he has separated himself from God. One would speculate that he’s trying to use drugs to reconnect.

We see the result, the fruits of this effort. One must pray intensely that he will truly find God again, the old-fashioned way.

May 31, 8:08 pm | [comment link]
25. Alta Californian wrote:

I was sad to read this in the Chronicle the other day.  It is such a beautiful building, housing the oldest congregation on the Pacific Coast. Sealing it off will only mean deterioration and destruction.  A real shame.

I must say, I lived in SF about 3 years ago, and had occasion to visit Trinity.  Either the congregation felt smaller because of the size of the sanctuary or 70 is a rather generous assessment.  (#s 3 & 4, Grace Cathedral has a bit healthier an ASA).

A side note, the chapel they plan to use hosted the founding of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, famous (or infamous) for its innovations (“liberal” is not quite an adequate descriptor), some 20 years ago.  They now have a neo-Russian Orthodox looking building on Potrero Hill, across town.

June 1, 12:45 am | [comment link]
26. Words Matter wrote:

I’ve been wanting to ask: since these buildings survived the 1906 earthquake, why so much concern now? Granted, they are much older, but they were obviously well-built to start with.

I know, that sounds like a stupid comment, but…

June 1, 12:47 am | [comment link]
27. Joshua 24:15 wrote:

More unfortunate symbolism, indeed.  The oldest Episcopal congregation in CA, withering in an incredibly affluent, gay-friendly city.  FWIW, my parents briefly attended Trinity in the early ‘80s, until the arrival of another “visionary” priest, Robert Cromey.  This parish has been under the leadership of the likes of Cromey and now Charles for a long time, and the results show.

Sorry, John Wilkins (#14), but the problem IS one of theology AND stewardship.

For an insight into Rev. Cromey, here’s a link to one of his oeuvres:

http://www.amazon.com/Sex-Priest-Robert-Warren-Cromey/dp/1413499058/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1243892344&sr=1-3

June 1, 5:45 pm | [comment link]
28. rob k wrote:

FYI There are many historic Roman Catholic churches in San Francisco, and there were nearly 60 parishes at one time in the small 7x7 49 square miles in the city.  Several years ago Archbishop Quinn had several of them closed, among them St. Brigid, St. Josheph, St. Edward, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Francis, Sacred Heart (which suffered significant damage in the 1989 quake even though it survived the 1906 one, plus a few others I am overlooking now.  Reasons are several - New codes after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake have upped the standards.  Another cause was that the Archdiocese was hit with some expensive settlements in the abuse issues.  Another cause was demographics, the same as in some other cities.  RCs once made up more than 50% of the city.  That is no longer the case.  Old St. Mary’s the first cathedral (1854 to 1888’s) is spending a lot of money meeting the code, as is St Patrick (1851).  St. Francis (1850), only a few blocks from St. Peter & Paul, has thankfully been re-opened as the National Shrine of St. Francis.  Meanwhile, Old Trinity is a beautiful church, and it will be very sad if it eventually closes.  Meanwhile, also, the ASA at Grace Cathedral is very good, and it is heavily visited by people from all over the country and the world.  Some other historic church buildings in SF are St. Mary the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist.

June 1, 6:33 pm | [comment link]
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