Home Church community Saint-Barnabé Church: a surprising story

Saint-Barnabé Church: a surprising story

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Saint Barnabas in Pasadena (Photo – Brian Biery)

If you go up Fair Oaks Ave. at 35 MPH, you’ll likely miss the modest adobe-style church on the east side of the street, wedged between the Jackie Robinson Center and the newly installed climbing gym.

By Brian Biery

Unlike many churches in downtown Pasadena, St. Barnabas Church does not feature European architecture, nor an enormous sanctuary, yet it provided a vital spiritual home to the community for nearly a century.

Few people in the region are aware of the important and unique history of the church, which must be considered from a societal point of view. 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 towns they thought were more open and tolerant, they did not find welcoming arms in their new communities. Ruby McKnight-Williams, a longtime member of the Pasadena 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 haven’t seen no difference between Pasadena and Mississippi except they were spelled differently.

Religious institutions were places where segregation was very visible and common, especially during the early years of the 20th century. Pasadena churches were no different, as many did not allow people of color to worship from their pews. The construction of St. Barnabas Church was directly linked to the exclusionary policies of the time of All Saints Episcopal Church, located across from City Hall.

During the first decades of the 20th century, migrant families from the South, Mexico, Japan, and China lived in what is now known as Old Pasadena. The area was a thriving mix of businesses, churches, restaurants, and even a hotel that welcomed people of color. Amidst this culturally diverse neighborhood, the seeds for St. Barnabas Church were sown by several prominent and dedicated women. In 1923, Georgia Weatherton furnished 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 establish an Episcopal community.

With the official admission of St. Barnabas into the Episcopalian archdioceses in 1932, a brick-and-mortar building was needed to house the congregation. Rather than inviting members of St. Barnabas to join their church, the families of All Saints donated the land (Dobbins family) at 1062 N. Fair Oaks Ave. and provided funds (Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Fleming) to build a sanctuary. The church building, which is still in use today, was consecrated by Bishop Bertrand Stevens in June 1933.

A sign for a church

Saint Barnabas (Photo – Brian Biery)

The result was that for nearly 90 years, St. Barnabas Church has focused on community service. Originally organized to serve black residents of Pasadena, it has grown to provide assistance and resources to a wide range of community members. For example, the parish hall was built in 1972 with the hope of functioning as a community center. Currently, three groups of Alcoholics Anonymous use the church hall on weeknights as a meeting space. Additionally, a Spanish-speaking Catholic congregation uses the chapel on Sunday afternoons and a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregation meets at the 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 predominantly black, yet highly integrated and inclusive church family, our core is “love,” in the manner of St Barnabas. Everyone is welcome here! Additionally, the church donates 40% of its assets, provides dinner for the Union Station community every 3rd Friday of the month, provides college scholarships for PUSD graduates, and raises funds for financial support from emergency to community members.

The next time you drive up Fair Oaks Ave., slow down just before Hammond St. to see the spire of St. Barnabas Church proudly crowning its humble chapel. And consider stopping to visit this unique and amazing religious community, which graced our city with a generosity and compassion that belies its origins at 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.

Brian Biery is a community organizer, documentary photographer and Adjunct Professor of Advocacy/Social Justice at Pacific Oaks College.

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