If you drive up Fair Oaks Ave. at 35 MPH you will probably miss the modest, adobe-style church on the east side of the street, wedged in between the Jackie Robinson Center and the recently installed climbing gym.
By Brian Biery
Unlike many of the churches in downtown Pasadena, St. Barnabas Church does not feature European architecture, nor an enormous sanctuary, and yet it has provided an essential spiritual home for the community for nearly a century.
Few people in the area are aware of the church’s important and unique history, which must be viewed from a societal level. The diaspora known as ‘The Great Migration’ brought millions of African-Americans from the South to cities like Detroit, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and, ultimately, Pasadena.
Unfortunately, however, when families reached cities that they thought would be more open and accepting, they didn’t find welcoming arms in their new communities. Ruby McKnight-Williams, a long-time member of Pasadena’s NAACP Branch, is quoted in Muir HS graduate Lynn Hudson’s book West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California’s Color Line as saying, “I didn’t see any difference between Pasadena and Mississippi except that they were spelled differently.”
Religious institutions were places where segregation was highly visible and commonplace, especially during the first years of the 20th century. Pasadena’s churches were no different, as many did not allow persons of color to worship from their pews. The construction of St. Barnabas Church was directly related to the exclusionary policies of the time by All Saints Episcopal Church, which is located across the street from City Hall.
During the first decades of 20th century, migrant families from the South, Mexico, Japan and China lived in what today is known as Old Pasadena. The area was a thriving mix of businesses, churches, restaurants, and even a hotel that catered to People of Color. In the middle of this culturally diverse neighborhood the seeds for St. Barnabas Church were sown by several prominent and dedicated women. In 1923 Georgia Weatherton provided her home on Del Mar St. near Fair Oaks Ave. for services, while Ellensteen Bevans and Rosebud Mims served as lay leaders for the fledgling church. All Saints Church provided a Lay Reader and organist to support their efforts to create an Episcopal community.
With formal admittance of St. Barnabas into the Episcopalian Archdioceses in 1932, a brick and mortar building was needed to host the congregation. Rather than inviting St. Barnabas’ members to join their Church, families from All Saints donated the land (Dobbins Family) at 1062 N. Fair Oaks Ave. and provided funding (Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Fleming) to build a sanctuary. The church building, which is still in use today, was dedicated by Bishop Bertrand Stevens in June of 1933.
The result has been that for nearly 90 years, St. Barnabas Church has focused on being of service to the community. Originally organized to serve Pasadena’s Black residents, it has grown to provide assistance and resources to a wide range of community members. For example, Parish Hall was constructed in 1972 with the hopes of functioning as a community center. Currently, three Alcoholics Anonymous groups use Parish Hall on weeknights as a meeting space. In addition, a Spanish-speaking Catholic congregation uses the Chapel on Sunday afternoons and a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregation meets in Parish Hall on Friday and Sunday evenings for their services.
According to church board member Marco White, “The oldest historically Black Episcopal Church in the San Gabriel Valley is still thriving! As a predominately Black, yet very integrated and inclusive church family, our core is ‘love’, St Barnabas style. All are welcome here!” In addition, the church donates 40% of its assets, provides dinner to the Union Station community every 3rd Friday of the month, gives college scholarships to PUSD grads, and raises funds for emergency financial support for community members.
Next time you drive up Fair Oaks Ave. slow down just before Hammond St. to see the St. Barnabas Church spire as it proudly crowns its humble chapel. And consider stopping to visit this unique and amazing faith community, one that has graced our city with generosity and compassion that belie its origin during a time when segregation was more common than inclusion.
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church 1062 North Fair Oaks Pasadena, CA 91103 626.798.2996 Contact and Service Information Weekly Sunday In-Person Service @ 9am and Facebook Live Stream.
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