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Our History: Part Two

In this second installment of our three-part series, we dive into the rich history of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego. From the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the response to the Cedar Fire in 2003, we explore pivotal moments that have defined the diocese’s journey. This video highlights the diocese’s spiritual milestones and evolution. It showcases our profound impact on the community — from aiding the homeless and refugees to embracing diversity and offering solace during national crises. Join us in this visually rich journey through time, celebrating the unwavering spirit and enduring legacy of EDSD.

In 1983, EDSD made headlines when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited St Paul’s Church. Thousands of San Diegans lined the streets to receive the royal coming. Tickets were required to attend the service, most of which were given to St Paul’s members. The Reverend James Carroll, rector of St Paul’s at the time, reportedly said, “I dreamed of preaching at St Paul’s Cathedral in London and it never happened. Probably never will. But this was better.”

Two years later, in 1985, St. Paul’s was consecrated as the Episcopal Cathedral of San Diego. But that was not the beginning of St. Paul’s ministry in the region. In fact, St. Paul’s ministry began over 100 years before becoming a cathedral.

On the evening of Friday, November 26, 1869, Rev. Sidney Wilbur welcomed congregants into the church residence, where they organized themselves as the Parish of the Holy Trinity.

In 1885, the people of Holy Trinity wanted to express the new energy of the church and were granted permission from Convention to change it to St. Paul’s.

The 3rd rector, The Rev. Henry Restarick, said, “When I arrived in 1882, San Diego was a dead town. It had a population of about two thousand people, and at the intersection of the principal streets, three of the four store buildings were empty.”

It wasn’t long before the people of St. Paul’s began a campaign to build a new church space. On Good Friday 1887, the last service was held in the “old church.” That evening, the seats were removed, and on Saturday morning, with great effort, the new church building was made ready.

It was reported that “Strenuous efforts were made to clear out the new building, to tack cloth on the unglazed windows, and to put in seats made of the old pews and planks resting on empty coal oil boxes.”
The first service was held in the new building the next morning, April 10, 1887, Easter Sunday.

In 1905, naval vessels rarely visited San Diego, but in July, the U.S.S Bennington steamed into the bay. While lying at anchor, its boilers blew up. The explosion and escaping steam killed or injured over half the crew. John Sehon, Mayor of San Diego and Treasurer of St. Paul’s jumped into action. Just two days later, St. Paul’s clergy conducted the burial of 47 men at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on Point Loma.

It was around this time when St. Paul’s was beginning to consider a new location for the church. On October 20, 1919, the parish purchased a site of five lots facing 5th Ave, Nutmeg Street, and Sixth Avenue, directly opposite Balboa Park. These lots cost $25,500.

The faithful continued to worship in their church for nearly 30 years while the congregation raised funds, imagined, and built the new church. In 1948, St. Paul’s sold their church property to move to the new ‘Nutmeg Street’ location. The deciding factor for selling their old property was the moving of their old church.

The 60-year-old church was cut into ten manageable sections and moved to its new site. In 1931, Dean Barns reported to Diocesan Convention, “We are fully persuaded that a student chapel should be provided in the near future, to be located just beyond the campus of the new State College.” That college is now known as SDSU.

On Christmas Eve 1948, lit by car headlights from the parking lot, the first service in the chapel of St Dunstan’s was celebrated. St Dunstan’s became the first parish in the city for college students.
Years later, the church was divided into pieces and moved again, this time to Lemon Grove. Today, this historical church building serves the people of St Phillip’s, a vibrant Latino congregation with regular services in Spanish.

It seems that everywhere you look it has made an impact.

In the early 1980’s when the AIDS epidemic struck the gay community, Susan Jester, now a notable Episcopalian, used her organizing skills and political experience to raise awareness, calm public fears, and secure critically needed money.

Mobilizing gay people and numerous straight allies, Susan helped produce the first AIDS Walk in San Diego in 1985.

In 2017, St. Paul’s officially partnered with San Diego Pride in continued support of its LGBTQIA+ neighbors. Light Up the Cathedral marks the beginning of PRIDE week in San Diego every year, and to this day, San Diego is the only Pride celebration in the country that begins with an interfaith service in a Cathedral.

Today, under the leadership of the esteemed Dean Penelope Bridges, St. Paul’s Cathedral continues to reach new heights.

The 1990s was a radical decade in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego. It was a time of living by example.

In 1991, an arsonist set fire to St. David’s Episcopal Church in Clairemont. The church was completely destroyed. Remarkably after the fire stopped burning, the cross hanging above the altar, made of nothing but straw hung on a charcoal wall– remained untouched by the flames.

The Rev. Susan Tobias, St. David’s rector at the time of the fire, visited the arsonist in jail and acted as their counselor. One Sunday in the mid-90s, the arsonist came to the rebuilt St. David’s for worship, stood in the chancel, then apologized for his act. The once distraught congregation gathered around him and tearfully embraced him. Forgiveness flowed. Jesus Christ was present, and the once church-arsonist continued as a welcomed member of the congregation until he moved from the area.

Three years later, St. John’s in Chula Vista met a similar fate. In April of 1994, an arsonist set the church ablaze. The fire led the local CBS8 news cycle when it was reported, “There wasn’t much to the recovery effort because there isn’t a whole lot to recover. This fire burned so hot even the stone walls have come down.” St. John’s rector at the time, Michael Kaehr, visited and forgave the arsonist.

Today, after celebrating over 100 years of ministry, St. John’s in Chula Vista is rebuilt and better than ever. Led by the Rev. Roger Haenke, St. John’s has a thriving partnership with Episcopal Community Services–offering a Head Start program that serves 140 children.

Blockbuster was still the place to rent a DVD, AOL took a backseat to other rising internet companies, climate change became a common concern … and the September 11th attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, changed the world forever.

San Diego’s Church Times reported that on the day of the attacks, a businessman noticed the doors of Holy Cross, Carlsbad, were propped open; he went in and said, “I need a place to pray; may I come in?” He was welcomed. Another woman, walking down Fifth Avenue, wandered into St. Paul’s Cathedral and said, “This feels like the place I should be on a day like this.”

Around that time, homelessness throughout Southern California was on the rise, and the people of St. Alban’s in El Cajon stepped in to help. In May 2002, St. Alban’s decided to install a portable toilet on their property for homeless use.

The City eventually bowed to St. Alban’s pressure, passing an emergency resolution to provide a cold-weather shelter. The rector, in full vestments, led a procession to the new city shelter.

In EDSD, we believe everyone deserves a place to feel safe and to call home. Today, EDSD is helping congregations consider how they could use under-utilized property to address the housing crisis across our region. EDSD’s Mission Real Estate Group is helping churches assess their properties for both housing and other mission-focused uses. And with 14 churches at different stages of the process, we’re off to a good start!

The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego continued to welcome refugees from war-torn areas around the world. In Africa, the second Sudanese Civil War continued to rage. Over 20 years ago, droves of refugees from the Sudan began arriving in San Diego.

More than 3,600 of the Lost Boys of Sudan came to the United States. One Sunday, after visiting other churches in the area, a Lost Boy came to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in North Park, where he was warmly welcomed by the predominantly Anglo community. He said, “Because you welcomed us, we will fill this church one day.”

Over twenty years later, the people of St. Luke’s in North Park delight in the diversity of their congregation. With many Sudanese- and Congolese-American members, it is a place where the intersection of differences is celebrated as a wonderful gift.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the people of St. Luke’s felt called to serve and established St. Luke’s Refugee Network as a ministry. Now over 20 years old, the program has grown into RefugeeNet–an independent non-profit that works closely with St. Luke’s. Today, RefugeeNet provides food distribution, after-school tutoring, case management, and job development for Arabic, Karen, and Swahili-speaking former refugees and their families.

St. Luke’s and RefugeeNet continue to be the welcoming face of Jesus Christ for those who’ve fled for their lives to a new country, a new city, a new community: our community.

In the Fall of 2003, areas of our community were set ablaze. The Cedar Fire scorched 687 square miles, destroyed 2232 homes, and killed 15 people in San Diego. The sky was painted brown with ash for weeks. Hotspots continued to burn for over a month.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Ramona became an informal evacuation shelter as fire victims gathered and made plans. Parishioners brought food, clothing, blankets,, and other things that people might need as they fled their homes. The Rev. Leland Jones, the vicar at the time, physically moved from home to home with messages because phone service was down. Several people loaned their RVs to house families who’d lost everything.

More than 300 homes around Camp Stevens in Julian were burned. Our camp was quick to house families in their cabins.

Because the Red Cross is set up to aid those who are displaced but not homeless, those who’d lost their homes were left without support. This is where Episcopal Community Services stepped in to fill the gap.

ECS provided assistance to those without a clear path forward with food, clothing, phone cards, housing, and transportation.

In the end, St. Francis, Pauma Valley; St. Alban’s El Cajon; St. Mary’s Ramona; St. Barnabas’, Borrego Springs; Christ the King, Alpine; St. Timothy’s San Diego; Camp Stevens, Julian; and St Bartholomews, Poway were directly affected by the fire. None were damaged, but all were places of prayer and centers for pastoral care.

Inspired by the stories of our past, let us give thanks for those who poured out God’s love and care after the the fires in our churches and the wildfires in our communities.

God of Love by the Fire of Your Holy Spirit.

You have called us to your service. We give you thanks for the many ways your spirit has been manifest in our diocese. From the visit of a queen to the open welcome given to refugees from all over the world. From the assurance of God’s love for all people to the. To the forgiveness and recovery offered to those setting and suffering from fires.

We ask you to open our hearts to the fire of your courageous love that we may be filled with the true spirit of mission and service to your beloved creation. In Jesus name, we pray. Amen.


Category: #Communications

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One reply to “Our History: Part Two

  1. Ruth Canzoneri Young | on December 6, 2023

    A wonderful history of our diocese. Thank you! Just wanted to add that St. Phillip’s in Lemon Grove also was partially destroyed by an arson fire!

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