On February 23, 1849, the first steamship to venture up the California coast entered the Bay of Monterey. Among it’s passengers was a young man newly commissioned by the American Home Missionary Society, Rev. John W. Douglas, who a month later chose the Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe for his field of ministry.
Rev. Douglas considered San Jose an important place, and subsequent events confirmed his judgment. The California Constitutional Convention, meeting at Monterey on September 4, 1849, changed the state capital from Monterey to San Jose. This act caused an immediate boom in the life of the growing city although the capital would soon change again to Sacramento.
So, in March, 1849, this young and enthusiastic Presbyterian minister began his ministry in San Jose. From his letters to the American Home Society, we read: “My audience on the Sabbath is much larger than I anticipated it would be in March, owing to the fact that many of those who left two months ago for the mines have returned to reside until September.” Regarding the evening prayer meetings during the week he said that since many of the men were absent, “their wives dislike coming out alone after dark through fear of Indians.”
A few months later, in October 1849, he wrote: “I have organized a Presbyterian Church here of 6 members.” Although not officially called the First Presbyterian Church until 1858, they first met in the Juzgado, or courthouse of the Alcade, then in a hastily erected building where the State Legislature met; and several times in Grandma Bascom’s Blue Tent on Second Street. A Church structure of wood was soon built on North Second Street, across from the present Trinity Episcopal Church. The dedication took place in 1851.
In a little over a decade, the original wooden building proved inadequate and a $20,000 brick structure was erected in the midst of Civil War days in 1863. This building, repaired after the earthquake in 1868, continued in use until the earthquake of 1906.
Over the years, First Presbyterian Church of San Jose has given birth to numerous other Presbyterian churches. In 1881, 77 members were dismissed to organize Second Presbyterian Church, now known as Westminster Presbyterian Church.
The 1906 earthquake demolished the church. The steeple was thrown into the street. The east wall fell on the pipe organ and the building was deemed unsafe to enter. Nineteen deaths were reported. The new building, located at 48 N. Third Street, was completed and dedicated in April 1908.
In 1944, a committee of Elders laid the foundation for the Foothill Presbyterian Church. Then in 1953, nearly 250 members from First Church became the charter members of Calvin Presbyterian Church which closed in 2007.
Changes in the past half century
During the 1950’s, First Presbyterian Church witnessed what many downtown churches experienced in the era of “suburban flight”. The downtown core was crumbling as suburban shopping centers proliferated creating “urban blight”. By 1969, it was clear that the First Presbyterian Church must redefine itself in order to continue to be a meaningful presence in the downtown community. The long-range planning committee spent considerable time assessing the needs of the surrounding community. It was clear that the building deterioration and shrinking membership as well as a need for a residential facility for low income seniors called for the decision was to demolish the building and build a not-for-profit 10 story apartment building on the footprint of the church.
And so Town Park Towers was erected and continues to provide 216 residential units. In 1973, First Presbyterian Church dedicated a new smaller sanctuary with classrooms and parking area facing Fourth Street. This began two successful 17-year ministries. Through an aggressive outreach effort the congregation became very diverse.
Today, the congregation celebrates its great diversity and continues its commitment to the downtown community. including the residents of Town Park Towers. The complexion of our immediate area dramatically changed with the building of a new City Hall diagonally across the street.