SEVENTY FIVE YEARS (1899-1974): The Little Church on Depot Hill
By Alvin D. Wilder, Jr.
The first seventy-five years of St. John's history are detailed in this booklet, written on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of St. John's founding.
Click here to view the booklet (PDF).
How We Got Here (from Capitola to Aptos, 1962-2009)
by Suzanne Krakover-Nickel & Win Fernald
As far back as 1962, St. John’s looked to relocate to a prominent location from its hideaway 1898 Carpenter Gothic chapel on Depot Hill in Capitola with six parking spaces. In 1963 the General Division of Research and Field Study of the Episcopal Church visited St. John’s and recommended relocation. Bishop Millard felt it could be done if the present average weekly pledge of $3.50 be raised to $5. Nothing happened and the next year the vestry decided that due to lack of funds, people and resources, relocation be abandoned. The old red-tagged parish hall was demolished and a new Administration and Education building was built in 1967.
The 1984 vestry retreat focused on long-range planning. It decided that the parish was at a turning point. It either needed to grow or it would wither and die. If nothing was done, another parish would come in and supplant St. John’s as the mid-County church and recast it as the folks who loved the status quo and who were not willing to risk growth. For four years the parish discussed and researched all the possibilities it could imagine to provide the additional space needed to support its growing ministry: buying more property on Depot Hill, leasing space nearby, finding mid-county property to buy and moving everything to a new site, and more. The conclusion was that a new church site in mid-county was the best choice for the future.
In the late 1980s during our search for property, nine acres of sub-dividable land on McGregor drive in Aptos became available. St. John’s had limited funds and needed a partner to proceed with any purchase of property. Development restrictions on the site required that any housing constructed must designate at least 15% of the land to affordable-housing. Partnering with the Santa Cruz Housing Authority and inviting them to be part of the purchase would allow SCHA to build affordable-housing on 100% of their property. They were excited about that opportunity and we agreed to a purchase agreement with the owner that included the Housing Authority and St. John’s.
In 1989, the centennial anniversary of the parish founding, Bill Kell chaired the first Second Century Capital Campaign drive with a goal of raising $600,000 to be used for the purchase of new property. Seventy-three pledges totaling $459,000 were received. The Annalise Fleharty estate made a $100,000 bequest and some additional seed money was received so the campaign reached its goal.
In June of 1991, a special parish meeting was held to make a final decision and vote on the McGregor Project. 72% of parish members voted in favor of the purchase. After vestry approval of the project in June of 1992, Rector Larry Mikkelsen signed the agreement with the Santa Cruz Housing Authority. A local architect was engaged to develop a preliminary site plan for the entire nine acre site and the County of Santa Cruz granted the “Lot Line Adjustment” that was required to finalize the purchase. St John’s had 2.5 acres for its new church site, the Housing Authority had 2.5 acres for affordable housing, the road was about one acre and the rest of the property was transferred back to the original owner.
Father Larry passed away in June of 1993 and St. John’s, after grieving over his loss, turned its attention to finding new leadership. The McGregor Project became the Canterbury Site Project and would be held for future development. The Rev. Steve Ellis was called to be St. John’s rector in 1995. Father Steve had managed a church building project at St. Anne’s, Stockton, and it was understood that, if the parish felt called to do so, he would help us build a new church.
In 1997 we began our annual tradition of worshiping outdoors at the Canterbury Site on Wharf-to-Wharf Sundays. The high traffic and presence of 15,000 runners made it extremely difficult for parishioners to get to our Depot Hill church on that Sunday. By 1998 the leadership transition was complete and the rector, vestry and parish all felt ready to reactivate the Canterbury Project and see if a move to Aptos was possible.
We undertook a two-year strategic planning study, chaired by Anne Baker, of what the size and organization of a healthy congregation would look like. We visited dozens of churches up and down the Pacific Coast and elsewhere, compiled three two-inch binders of photographs and pro-and-con data on each site visited, and invited parish members to look and comment on them.
We then generated a needs report to give potential architects, citing our desire to see one another during worship, to have a place for parish youth to call their own, a functioning industrial kitchen, showers, lots of storage space, and numerous other details. Then we solicited proposals from architects and analyzed them, a process that was open to the entire congregation.
As commitment for the project began to emerge, we undertook a second capital fund-raising campaign with the goal of raising enough money to prepare the Canterbury Drive property for building – putting in the access road, drainage, sewers and utilities, legal, engineering and architectural fees and related expenses. All very ho-hum, pedestrian but necessary work. We raised roughly $400,000. The two capital campaigns together raised approximately $1 million, a very impressive amount for a small congregation.
While this was going on we invited the three finalist architecture firms to visit us individually and present their ideas to the parish at forum time when we could ask them questions we wanted answered. In June 2000, the Canterbury Site Team recommended its choice and the vestry agreed to sign a contract with the noted Marin County architect Warren Callister. That was something of a gamble because Mr. Callister was in his 80’s at the time, but his vision for the property development was unique and well-thought-out and greatly in conformance with our wishes of what the entire space would look like. In mid-2001 we closed escrow on the McGregor Drive property. At that time we had spent over $773,000 on principal and interest payments on the property.
On May 12, 2002 at a rector’s forum, Warren Callister presented a scale model of his plans for the development of St. John’s future home. The first phase included an open courtyard and temporary “sanctuary”/multi-use building with a kitchen, sacristy, library/office, four restrooms and perimeter parking for 100 vehicles [the current structure that stands on St. John's property today].
At that point we decided to start the process of selling the Depot Hill church property. Our first strategy was to offer it as a retreat center to religious organizations but we had no takers. Our second strategy was just to offer it to other denominations, and again there was no interest by potential buyers. By 2006 the housing market in Santa Cruz was bubbling and on April 20th of that year Father Steve signed a contract to sell the three Capitola parcels; the church, the parish hall, and the “little house” behind the church.
We received a $150,000 non-refundable option to buy the three parcels in October 2006. Under the terms of the contract, the buyer would take title of the properties in April 2007 at which time the church would receive the balance of the $2,700,000 sales price, minus closing costs and reimbursement of expenses. We then rented back all three properties at $5,000 a month until giving up the little house in April 2008.
The buyer, Christy Bohnet, first rehabilitated the little house and rented it out while she pursued her vision of converting the church into a residence. She then rehabilitated the parish hall into a three bedroom, two bath residential unit with storage space for construction materials in half of the old multi-purpose room and a living/dining room in the other half. Ms. Bohnet demonstrated a love for the old church building that was greatly utilized in her thoughtful reconstruction of an 1898 structure with no plumbing into a state-of-the-art remodel that fully respects its past. (It should be noted that we built the new St. John’s church in less than a quarter of the time she took to remodel the old building.) We had the perfect buyer.
So there we were, with some cash on hand but not enough to build a church, about to launch a THREE MILLION DOLLAR CAPITAL CAMPAIGN, with a lead gift of $1 million already pledged, when the bottom fell out of the bank-loan industry in 2008. All those sub-prime mortgages had a chilling effect on our ability to secure a construction loan.
The bankers scanned our annual financial reports.
“Why is there no profit?”
“Um, we’re a church, not a business.”
“How can you assure us that the amounts people have pledged will actually be paid?”
“Based on our past campaigns, people fulfill their fiscal obligations.”
Rowland Rebele, co-chair of the Capital Campaign committee, and then parish treasurer Mary-Nona Hudson talked themselves blue in the face dealing with various lending institutions. Ultimately, we were able to secure two construction loans from Wells Fargo and a line-of-credit from Coast Commercial Bank, but only with the added protection for them that seven parish families were willing to secure the loans by guaranteeing their own homes as equity. That was indeed a leap of faith.
After his death, we engaged a new architectural firm to translate Warren Callister’s vision into schematics that a construction firm could actually bid on, and we selected XL Construction as the building contractor.
In March 2008 the County Planning Department approved our permit to begin construction in April 2008 but with the provision that site work for all phases of the building project be included in the initial construction. We had to scale back somewhat on what we hoped to include in the first construction phase in order to keep on budget. And one of the sub-contractors underestimated their costs to the tune of nearly $500,000 so we had a “gap” that needed funding.
Things were more than hectic – the vestry with Senior Warden Lucretia Mann, the Canterbury Committee with chair Anne Baker, the Architecture Committee chaired by Chris Cottle and the Capital Campaign Committee, co-chaired by Pat and Rowland Rebele and Karen Greenleaf – all had different pieces of the project. Almost monthly forums were held to keep everyone who wanted to stay informed in the loop but with so much was going on simultaneously it was difficult to do so. And Soquel Creek Water District required us to offset our projected water use by replacing more than 70 conventional residential toilets with newer low-flow models, so we had that additional burden to overcome.
After a ceremonial groundbreaking in April 2008 during the spring, summer and autumn construction work on-site progressed slowly from grading to installing utilities, and all the landscaping and sidewalk work that needed to be done before actual construction started. Ray Wolfe, the vestry liaison to the Canterbury Site and Anne Baker began their daily hard-hat-wearing site walks. A prayer team led by Stu Fitch and Joanne Peterson met at the site every Thursday at 10 a.m. to pray for the mission of the church, the workers building it and everything connected to the construction project. We were blessed by XL's on-site construction superintendent, Tim Keogh, whose strong Christian faith informed everything done by his crew and who frequently prayed with the team. Those men knew they were building something special. Finally, on October 24th, 26 GraniteRock cement trucks rolled up and poured 2300 cubic yards of cement to complete the foundation.
Shortly thereafter, framing began and before Christmas a fir tree appeared on the top of the structure, signaling that the building had been topped off. After the first of the year the fir tree had been replaced by a five-foot tall sculpture of an avian crane that remained there until it was replaced by the cross when the building was completed.
By February 2009 the new church was starting to look like a building with ceilings installed, wiring and window installation about to be started and interior framing in process.
In early 2009 the Strategic Planning committee held a series of a dozen or so house meetings to discuss “what’s next” as our time on Depot Hill grew shorter, and also planned a series of Seacliff neighborhood walks to hear from our prospective neighbors what their concerns were and how we might be of help, to engage them in dialogue about unmet community needs.
In May we hung a long silk canopy high above the aisle, stretching from the door to the chancel steps, in the Depot Hill church in the hope that our prayers and all the prayers of those who had worshiped in that place for the last almost 110 years would be absorbed, and we would carry that silk to our new home when moving day came.
At last we got our occupancy permit and made our final moving plans. We cleared out the old parish hall, the sacristy, the storage shed and the church building itself, packing boxes and boxes of books for the library and everything else we really needed to take with us and gifting the Helpful Shop with that which we could leave behind.
On the foggy Saturday morning of June 20, 2009, Canon Brian Nordwick, representing Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, led a group of parishioners in a service of Secularizing a Consecrated Building at Depot Hill and a pick-up truck loaded with the altar, the large wooden cross and the Bishop's Chair headed off to Seacliff while another group were ferried by private cars to New Brighton State Beach where they began their march to Seacliff State Beach and up the road to Canterbury Drive, carrying the processional crosses and the long silk canopy, singing as they marched. By noon the 30 or so people who had participated in the march and those who were in the process of organizing the new kitchen, all gathered in the kitchen for a sandwich lunch, and we were amazed that all of us actually fit into that space.
The next morning, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, was sunny. We celebrated our 120th birthday as a congregation (we worshiped in private homes until the church building was completed in 1898) and the "wow" factor of experiencing our first worship services in the soaring, beautiful new building was palpable. Even the most die-hard fans of the old church were impressed.
Later that year, Eliza Linley transformed the silk canopy into wall hangings for Advent and the long green season following Pentecost and the green frontal for the altar. The prayer energy of Depot Hill thus permeated our new home.
We had overcome many obstacles. We had learned to listen to one another with respect. We learned how to compromise to eliminate things we wanted to be included in the new building but could not afford, we learned that God was with us on every step of the journey, and we learned how hard it was to commit to sacrificial giving and stick with it. Neither the national church nor the diocese contributed to our building fund. It was the people of the Church of St. John the Baptist who built the church, the "founding generation," as our Rector Emeritus, Steve Ellis, calls us. And, by the grace of God, we paid off the mortgage on June 20, 2017, and now own the building outright!