The Community Church of Sebastopol, United Church of Christ
On July 26, 1889, a group of nineteen people came together to discuss starting a new Congregational church in the village of Sebastopol. On August 9 of that year, at a special worship service, the church – known as the Congregational Society of Sebastopol – was “officially” recognized. And the very first thing those nineteen faithful people did was to form a Sunday School for the children, thus beginning a long tradition of this church’s concern for and commitment to children and youth. In those early years, the church shared a minister with the Green Valley Congregational Church just north of town.
The church worshipped in a number of buildings around Sebastopol until finally securing land on South Main Street. By 1900 the church had grown to the point where it was decided to proceed with the construction of a new church building. A dedication for the new First Congregational Church of Sebastopol was held on February 24, 1901. The building was located across from the Sebastopol post office on the site where a mortuary stands today – a coincidence that we are sure has no particular significance!
The church continued to grow and worship in this location until 1960. Along the way a fire destroyed the church in Green Valley and those folks, rather than rebuilding, decided to unite with the Sebastopol church. A notable event during the years of World War II was the decision by the minister, James Senter, and members of the church’s Pilgrim Fellowship to form a protective “human fence” around the Inmanji Buddhist Temple in Sebastopol after an attempt was made to burn it down. The Temple was saved and a video has been produced highlighting the crucial role play by First Congregational Church in its protection.
By 1955 the church building on South Main Street was in need of major repair. The church faced a significant decision…to undertake a major renovation of the building or move to a new location. After much discussion and few congregational votes, the decision was made to move to a two acre parcel on North Gravenstein Highway (Hwy 116). The land was purchased for $20,000. This was a controversial decision, with a number of church members protesting that no one would ever go “way out there” for a church service. But the decision was made and a building committee formed. The church remains at that location today, a location that is now within the city limits of Sebastopol.
The first worship service at the new location was held on June 4, 1961, in what is now the church Fellowship Hall. That first phase of construction also saw the completion of four new Sunday School rooms. Also in 1961, the congregation voted to join a new denomination – The United Church of Christ (UCC). The denomination was formed in 1958 through the merger of the Congregational-Christian Church and the Evangelical-Reformed Church, a denomination with German roots.
In 1965 it was decided to move ahead with plans and fund-raising for a new sanctuary. The sanctuary, in which the church continues to worship, was dedicated on November 19, 1967. Ten months later a beautiful new fifteen-rank pipe organ was dedicated, a gift from the family of long time church member, Oscar Hallberg. Rev. Peter Jansen was the minister for both the dedication of Fellowship Hall and classrooms and the new sanctuary.
Moving into the seventies, under the leadership of Rev. Philip Anderson, the church launched its annual September Family Camp, which continues to bring over a hundred church folks together each Labor Day weekend at our UCC camp above the town of Cazadero. Also, in 1973, the church officially changed its name to The Community Church of Sebastopol. While still a part of the United Church of Christ, the church saw the name change as a statement about its involvement with the wider Sebastopol community and its openness to people regardless of denomination. Also in the seventies, the church played a major role in the development of Burbank Heights, low-cost housing for seniors.
When senior minister, Rev. Gene Nelson, arrived in 1978, the church had a long-time dream of having a space where the entire congregation could gather and where larger community events could also be held. And so, after congregation meetings and fund-raising, it was decided to move forward with such a building. In 1997 the new multi-purpose building, Memorial Hall, was dedicated.
And the story continues. Having been squeezed for youth and church school/meeting space, and wanting a chapel for smaller worship experiences, in the summer of 2012, the church began construction on a new building, the final addition to the church campus. This new addition, completed in early 2013, provides even more opportunity, flexibility and programming for the church’s ministry and outreach we look ahead to a new century of service.
Rev. Nelson retired after serving 38 years at the Community Church and after a year-long search, Rev. Dr. Benjamin J. Broadbent was called to serve as senior minister. His first official Sunday was August 7, 2016. The church staff has grown to include a part time associate minister. The associates have been Rev. Ginny Curinga, Rev. Lizann Bassham, Rev. Tara Barber, Rev. Kristen DelMonte and our most recent associate, Rev. Rachel Knuth. Under their leadership the youth programs and children's ministry have continued to grow, including summer church camping. The church’s August apple pie sale now involves the baking and sale of over 1600 apple pies, all proceeds going to provide scholarships for church camps. The church sponsors both adult and youth mission trips, has continued its involvement in affordable housing development through faith-based community organizing and has seen an expansion of its music ministry.