Aging, with an open mind
The progressive Trinity United Methodist Church is officially 150—that’s older than the city of Chico
The mood was jubilant Sunday following a special service at Trinity United Methodist Church in Chico. The congregation had a birthday to celebrate. Had there been a cake, it would have been topped with 150 flickering candles.
“This is an exciting church in this town,” said Warner H. Brown, bishop of the entire region who came Sunday as a guest preacher. “It’s been doing its job very well.”
It’s clearly been doing it for a very long time, too, as it distinguishes itself as the oldest church in Chico.
As the story goes, related pastor David Moss to a crowd of at least 100, on Dec. 12, 1858, a group of pioneers gathered in a cabin on Chico Creek. They were led by a young Methodist preacher named Cyprian Gridley (not to be confused with George Gridley, for whom the city to Chico’s south is named). A church was born.
John Bidwell had settled in the area 15 years prior and would found the town two years later. A decade would pass before his wedding to Annie Kennedy, a very religious woman, who helped form Bidwell Presbyterian Church in 1870.
The Methodist church would undergo a number of changes, including a merger, over the years. And these days, with nearly 300 parishioners and a message of inclusiveness, the progressive congregation is as strong as ever.
Moss, who wears his white hair and goatee with pride, moved here to become pastor five years ago. Speaking to a happy crowd on Sunday, he exuded an enthusiasm that was contagious as members relished the good food brought by fellow congregants and stories of times past.
“Trinity is a growing, vital church that has met the challenges of every era it has served,” Moss said. “It has become, in this new century, a progressive … Christian witness, ready to meet the new unfolding world of this new millennium.”
Members who filled the multipurpose room ranged in age from teens and young families to elders well into their 80s. More than a few had multigenerational stories to tell about life at the church.
June Rothe-Barneson, for example, who was on the birthday committee, grew up there. “This truly is my kind of church,” she said, smiling.
One woman who shared her family’s story was Mary Wahl. As it turns out, the church brought together three couples in her family.
“My grandparents found each other at this church,” she said. Then it was her parents’ turn. And, as if following a tradition set in motion long ago, “Larry and I found each other here.”
The “wows” in the crowd were audible as Wahl revealed her family’s connection to the church. She and City Councilman Larry Wahl were married 16 years ago. His parents had joined the congregation when they moved here in the mid-1940s.
The history of Trinity United Methodist is also a long one. It begins with two Methodist congregations and, following a few decades of hard times (for years, neither group could afford a resident pastor), a merger into what we see now. Much of Trinity’s past goes hand-in-hand with what was going on nationally with the Methodist faith.
That first group that met in 1858 would eventually lead to the building of Broadway Methodist Episcopal Church, South, as it had settled in a building on Broadway at Sixth Street. In 1859, another group formed, and Bidwell granted four acres for the establishment of a second Methodist church—actually called First Methodist Episcopal Church of Chico—at Fourth and Salem streets.
Wahl’s great-grandparents, who moved to Chico from Orland to be closer to the Chico Normal School, which formed in the late 1880s, attended the First Methodist church. It was distinguished from the Broadway congregation in the same way the national Methodist church distinguished itself from its Southern, pro-slavery counterpart.
When Wahl’s grandfather on her father’s side—A. A. Fanno, of Fanno Saw Works—came to town in 1910, he, too, joined the First Methodist Church. Thirty years later, when the Broadway and First Methodist churches merged, following the national trend, they formed Trinity Methodist Church at its current location at Fifth and Flume streets. Fanno, who was on the Board of Trustees at the time, helped lay the cornerstone. Wahl’s grandmother on her mother’s side was the choir director.
The 1940s, after the merger of the two congregations, saw a revitalization, especially in the years following World War II. That spirit has pushed the church ever forward into what exists today, a progressive, equality-driven congregation. Moss described the United Methodist spirit to be that of “open doors, open hearts and open minds.”
That could certainly be said of Trinity, one of the few churches in the area to openly accept gays and lesbians.
In fact, it’s the open, welcoming community that seems to make Trinity the longstanding church that it is. Mary Wahl, for instance, had a group of church friends in the sixth grade who got together regularly, and now—though many have moved away and even joined other faiths—they still meet every few years to catch up.
The church also invites the community in by bringing speakers to town. In October, former M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell came to talk about celebrity and activism, and last month, Stacy Mitchell discussed her book, Big Box Swindle, about the hidden costs of stores like Walmart. (Back in 2004, the same year the church decided to openly accept gays, Trinity also spoke out against Walmart’s expansion in Chico).
So, for a church that’s older than even the city it calls home, Trinity United Methodist forges into the 21st century.
“We’ve come a long way since that first meeting in the dark of that cabin by the creek 150 years ago,” Moss said. Amen.