Bidwells and church bells
Chico’s Presbyterian community celebrates 150 years
Among his co-workers and fellow congregants at Bidwell Presbyterian Church, Robert Engstrom is sometimes referred to as the “minister of the custodial arts.” It may seem like a grandiose nickname for the church’s head handyman, but it’s a deserving one, considering the daily challenges he faces to maintain the safety, function and aesthetic integrity of a heavily trafficked historic building.
Engstrom’s to-do list Monday morning (Sept. 10) included changing some light bulbs and fixing a lock—simple-sounding tasks until you realize the bulbs hang in a chandelier suspended from the sanctuary’s ceiling some 20 feet above the pews, and the lock is a century-old mechanism he “had to do some surgery on” to return to working order.
“Just finding parts to repair things here is difficult, and if we can’t find them we have to fabricate them,” he said. There’s some peril involved as well, like when his duties last directed him to the top of the church’s towering belfry.
“Most of the old wooden ladders going up there have been replaced over the years with fiberglass ones, but the one at the very top wasn’t,” he said. “That ladder was over 100 years old, made of wood, and I’m a big guy … it wasn’t easy.”
The iconic brick-faced church adjacent to Chico State was originally constructed in 1910, and was largely remodeled following an arson fire in February 1931. Chico’s Presbyterian community has been around much longer, however, and Bidwell Presbyterian Church is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a series of events that began in late August and will continue through September.
“When we say ‘church,’ some people just think of the building, but we mean people,” explained Lisa Stone, who’s served as the congregation’s business administrator since 2006. The church started in 1868—the year Annie and John Bidwell were married—and, like much of the city’s early history, was directly tied to the couple.
Stone related some of the church’s past, and a more in-depth presentation by local historian David Nopel (which also included a prerecorded interview with Marge Maddux, a Chicoan in her 90s) kicked off the church’s sesquicentennial celebration events Aug. 29.
Annie was a devout Presbyterian, and her beliefs played a major role in the couple’s courtship. Stone paraphrased part of current head pastor Henry Hansen’s sermon last Sunday (Sept. 9), saying Annie purportedly told her suitor “his only major flaw was that he was a Methodist.” John converted shortly after, and Annie set about establishing the church upon her arrival in Chico from Washington, D.C.
Just a few years later, in 1871, the congregation had grown large enough to build the Chico Presbyterian Church, which was located at the corner of Broadway and Fourth streets and could fit 300 people. Membership ballooned in the first decade of the 1900s as the Diamond Match Co. attracted more people to Chico, and in time the church needed a new home. John Bidwell died in 1900, and Annie sold the church its current property for a fraction of the market value.
A few relics from the long-gone house of worship in the heart of downtown can be found at the current church. Those include the low granite walls abutting the sidewalk on First Street in front of the building; the bell, which still rings for Sunday services and weddings and dates back to 1874; and the Bidwell Memorial Window. The latter, a large stained-glass piece installed at the earlier church in 1901, a year after John Bidwell’s death, also survived the devastating 1931 blaze that claimed much of the later church’s original interior.
Stone characterizes Annie Bidwell as a kind-hearted woman driven by her faith and a passion for educating and helping people. She emphasized Annie’s good works, though she acknowledged that some of her missionary efforts—particularly with local native peoples—were misguided by modern standards.
“We have a lot more sensitivity to peoples’ ways of life now than some people did back then,” she said.
Comparing the church’s history to its present incarnation, Stone said Annie’s desire to have the church extend beyond its historic walls remains central to its modern mission. “We’re not really all about us, we’re here for the entire community, and to support those in need,” she said, noting Bidwell Presbyterian has volunteer programs benefiting the Jesus Center, Torres Community Shelter, Citrus Elementary School and other organizations.
As for changes since the Bidwell era, Stone joked that Annie would be shocked by how technology like cameras, lighting and sound equipment have been incorporated into the building’s design (the church live-streams its services on Facebook and its website). She also said the church was very traditional in Annie’s day, but now includes three widely different services—traditional, contemporary and one geared toward younger, hipper Christians held in the old Masonic building at 131 W. First St.
“I think if Annie walked in here right now,” Stone said with a laugh, “her jaw would probably drop to the floor the second she saw those bongos on stage.”