Bethany Presbyterian Church was down for the count when the Depression hit church coffers hard.
But the church – named for the village near Jerusalem where the Bible recounts Lazarus being raised from the dead – bounced back and grew.
Bethany could have closed its doors when the congregation was told that Highway 99 was going to be built right over its Oak Park home. Instead, the church moved, trucking the hand-me-down Army chapel members called home to a new site in south Sacramento.
And as other mainline churches closed, the proud Presbyterians of Bethany, blue collar and white collar alike, have stuck together, even as membership has dwindled from a high of 700 in the 1960s to 150 faithful today.
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Now, 100 years after its founding, the church is counting its blessings and looking ahead. A 100th anniversary celebratory dinner was held Saturday.
“We are a family here,” said the Rev. Lorie Sprinkle, Bethany’s pastor of seven years. “We have deep connections through the generations. And a big piece of our mission is the desire to serve others.”
In addition to providing a place to worship, the church in a working-class neighborhood near 24th Street and Fruitridge Road offers a variety of secular good works, including a public food pantry, courses in English as a second language and community safety forums.
The effort to connect with the wider community has resonated through Bethany’s century of existence. The church began in 1913 when a small group formed the Presbyterian Bible School in Oak Park.
On Sept. 20, 1914, Bethany was formally organized. A church was built at 30th Street and Second Avenue in Oak Park a few years later.
Membership blossomed to over 400 members in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1948, according to a church history account, Bethany bought a large surplus Army chapel in Stockton, took it apart and reassembled it at the Oak Park site.
“These could be mass produced in preparation of the large number of draftees that were being inducted into the military to fight the war,” Sprinkle said. “Apparently, Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t want worship services held in mess halls or theaters, believing that worshipping in a chapel would result in higher morale.”
After the war, the Army had more chapels than needed. Pastor Sprinkle said Bethany paid just $2,000 for its 800 series WWII Ch-1 Regimental Army Chapel.
It didn’t stand for long in Oak Park, though. In 1954, the state informed the congregation that Highway 99 was going to be built over its property.
Bethany bought its present site and moved the chapel and a two-story office building to what was then open land in the flight path of Executive Airport.
The bell tower and the steeple were all one piece atop the church in Oak Park, but that presented a problem at the new south Sacramento site. Church lore contends that an intact spire would interfere with airport radar.
“So the bell tower was placed on the sanctuary and the steeple was put on top of the social hall,” said Sprinkle
Activities through the years reflected the times. During the Depression, Bethany fed and clothed people. During World War II, Bethany women helped at the USO. In the turbulent 1960s, the church sponsored the groovy-sounding “Way Out House,” which held dances for teens.
The food pantry, opened in the 1970s on the Bethany property, is operated by churches in the South Sacramento Interfaith Partnership and serves more than 7,000 people a month. With the influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia, Bethany reached out to refugees, including the Rev. Ninh Nguyen, who started the Southeast Asian Assistance Center at the church.
Church member Tim Lumsden said Bethany is still plugging along, recently repainting, replastering and replacing dry-rotted wood.
“We are a smaller congregation than we were in the 1960s,” Lumsden said. “That’s true of a lot of mainstream Protestant churches. But still we are doing the ESL classes, we still house homeless families for a week. And there is a real strong bond here. At Bethany, we are all family. My wife and I have been going there for 27 years, and we are considered the ‘new people.’ ”
Sprinkle said the future of Bethany is in the hands of the almighty.
“We are older and we are smaller,” she said. “We all wonder about the future of Bethany Presbyterian Church. But we are confident that God has been at work in us for the last 100 years – and God continues to have a future and a plan for us.”