TURLOCK — The sign outside St. Francis Anglican Church reads think FORGIVE act. Action and forgiveness were the themes of the day, as the parishioners gathered Sunday for one last time at their church on Main Street before walking several blocks away to begin a new church in rented facilities.
The congregation opened its closing service with "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," which includes the words, "Thou art giving and forgiving ... teach us how to love each other."
It was especially poignant because the St. Francis facility has been in a tug-of-war since 2007, when 40 of the 47 parishes in the San Joaquin Diocese voted to leave the national Episcopal church over theological differences. The departing parishes, including St. Francis, and the diocese were sued by the Episcopal church in 2008 and 2009 in a bid to regain those properties.
After several years of litigation and a ruling earlier this year that favored the Episcopal church against two independently incorporated parishes in Kern County, the decision was made to return St. Francis and the historic Red Church (St. James) in Sonora, which were similarly incorporated. Lawsuits against the diocese and other parishes are still in the courts.
"We're here for a difficult service," said Bishop Eric Menees of the San Joaquin Anglican Diocese, who led the closing service at St. Francis. "This in a way is a death for us. I know some of you have spent your entire lives here baptized as a baby, married, baptized your children here, buried loved ones. It is normal for anger to arise. But if you're angry, be angry at me. As your bishop, it was my decision not to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to continue litigating for this building."
'No liturgy for this'
He later asked the congregation to pray "for our brothers and sisters of St. Francis Episcopal Church," which will take over the property June 1.
The bishop added, "There is no liturgy for this. If you look in our book for 'what to do when you've had to move out of a building because you've been sued,' there's nothing there," which prompted one of several moments of laughter.
Menees opened a time of sharing by members of the congregation of memories in that building. One woman spoke of baptizing her children there. An elderly man said he had been walking down the street one day when he felt God tell him to go into the church, where he found a warm welcome and years of fellowship. One woman, choking back tears, said, "I'm blessed because I've been here all my life. This is my home."
Virginia Cook said she had begun attending the church shortly after it was begun in 1948. "There are lots of memories here," summed up another man.
Through "our grief and our sorrow," Menees said, "we need to acknowledge that God is able to transform it into joy. St. Francis Anglican can become Grace Anglican Church, which will be a place where God is honored and glorified."
He and the Rev. Gerry Grossman, pastor of the church, then led the crowd of about 80 people down Main Street and onto South Denair Avenue, where they were welcomed by about 20 people from First Christian Church, which is sharing their facilities with the new church, called Grace Anglican Church.
The Day of Pentecost
The Rev. Greg Frazier, pastor of First Christian, was among those to greet the arriving congregation.
"The founding principle of this church, which was started in 1908, was that we are all one body (in Christ)," he said. "This was just an opportunity for us to help."
Inside the packed sanctuary Anglicans from Fresno, Oakdale and Merced arrived to participate in the start of the new church Grace Anglican opened its first service with a reminder that the day was Pentecost Sunday "the day of the birth of the church," Menees said, referring to the biblical account in Acts.
"This is, in every way, shape and form, a new moment," he said. "This is, sadly, the passing of St. Francis Anglican Church. But this is the day that begins Grace Anglican Church." His comment prompted applause.
The inaugural service was followed by a meal to celebrate the new beginnings.
Although the final exit from St. Francis was somber with a few teary-eyed glances at the beautiful stained glass windows that fill the sanctuary, the overall mood of the congregation was positive.
"I'm upset over what the Episcopal church has done; it's not the way Christians should act," said Russ Rappley, who joined St. Francis after moving from Michigan about four years ago. "Nevertheless, I am overjoyed that this church has taken us in. They have a beautiful church. I think we'll be very happy here."
'Grace of God is in us'
Ginny Pennington, who said she was a longtime member of St. Francis, said, "I was sad to leave the building, but very thankful to First Christian Church to give us a new home. (The service) was beautiful. It was a nice transition."
Joseph Magnu, who joined the church in 1998, a year before he was married there, said, "It's sad to leave (St. Francis), but we leave with our own conviction in the truth of the Lord as revealed in the Bible. The building, although beautiful and we love it very much, is only a place. The grace of God is in us."
Grace Anglican will hold weekly services at 4 p.m. Sundays. Address: 180 S. Denair Ave., Turlock 95380; phone: (209) 632-0788; website: www.graceanglicanturlock.com.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012.