A Brief History of the First United Methodist Church of Torrance
IN A LITTLE TOWN NAMED TORRANCE, CALIFORNIA, population 1,800-give or take-in the year 1921, a small group of people gathered with a happy feeling of achievement. With little money and no property, they banded together with first pastor the Rev. Gordon A. Reigler to form the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Torrance.
The original place of worship and Sunday school for the congregation was in the old Dominguez Land Office, a large tent. It was located just two blocks away from the present church site on the north side of El Prado Avenue, between Cravens and Sartori.
Everyone met together for singing in the center of the tent. Then each one took a folding chair to the designated corner of the tent to have class. Each had to be very quiet to hear the teacher and not disturb the other classes. After class, the chairs were lined up in the center of the tent again so that the church service could be held.
In rainy weather, some people would have to open their umbrellas to keep dry; the old tent wasn’t leak proof. If the children dropped their coins, sometimes they lost them in the cracks between the boards in the floor.
The Land Office was used during the week as a sales promotion room and dining area where prospective buyers were entertained and fed. On Sunday mornings, incense was burned to remove the smell of food and tobacco before services of worship could be held.
Nevertheless, there was a reverent spirit of worship during the service; the songs of praise were lifted high by the combined voices of young and old. Each voice in that makeshift sanctuary sang of the same firm belief and strong faith as those privileged to worship in the most ornate of sanctuaries, knowing that some day they would have their own church building.
There were approximately 20 members when the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Torrance was incorporated in January 1922. Later in 1922, the demolition of the Land Office building made relocation necessary: First to the Central Evangelical United Brethren Church (now the Fetu Ao First Samoan UMC) on Marcelina Avenue for a short time, then to the American Legion Hall on Border Avenue, which was rented for $3.00 a service. While using this Hall, land was secured at the present site and plans were drawn up for the first building. At this time Dr. J. W. Morris was appointed as the pastor. Under his ministry and with considerable volunteer labor, ground was broken on April 17, 1923 for this First Methodist sanctuary, dedicated in September of 1923.
The Women’s Society of Christian Service (WCSC), which was originally called the Ladies’ Aid, organized themselves and began to meet in members‚ homes. One of the first efforts of the Ladies‚ Aid was to hold a bazaar in the American Legion Hall. They rented the hall and cleared $156.85.
By February of 1923 the Women had paid half of their pledge, or $1,217.00, into the building fund. To earn the money, they gave lawn parties, “Plum Pudding Socials,” dinners for the Rotary Club (for which they charged 30¢ a plate), and rented a booth at the Fiesta to sell baked goods and hand made items.
Dr. and Mrs. Morris used the upstairs rooms (what is now called the Upper Room) for their temporary parsonage. Their kitchen was also the church kitchen, located adjacent to the sanctuary. Mrs. Morris had to go downstairs if she wanted to use an oven, but there was a hot plate upstairs.
In 1927 a parsonage was built on the church grounds, on Manuel Avenue near the chancel area of our present sanctuary.
In 1927 the Choir was organized and directed by Richard F. Hogue who, with his knowledge of music and loyal service, held this group together until his untimely passing in 1946. Then Mrs. Dorothee Hodges was elected as director. Some financial trivia–the pianist was paid $1.00 per Sunday this year.
In 1928 the ladies divided into three circles, according to the areas where they lived. The circles were additional meetings. They continued to meet together for the general meetings which were all-day affairs. They did sewing and quilting in the morning, had a sack lunch at noon and held their business meeting in the afternoon.
In 1929 more rooms including the Ladies’ Parlor and an arcade, were added, giving the church a Spanish mission style appearance.
During the 1930’s, the ladies put on monthly dinners for the general public to help pay off the mortgage. Then, as now, they had a reputation for being the “best cooks in town.” Among the other things, the Ladies earned money by serving luncheons to the Brotherhood (Men’s Club) each month; dinners ranging from 35¢ to 75¢ to the Rotary Club; received credit for Goodwill bags; gave Jitney (meaning 5¢) Dinners, and, they served refreshments to the “Sailors Tea Club” in San Pedro.
By August of 1932, the Rotary Club informed the Women’s Society that they could only guarantee 25¢ per meal. Rather than discontinue the dinners, the ladies wrote in their report, “will have to buy groceries on a little closer margin.”
In 1932, in order to save money, the church removed the telephones and discontinued using worship bulletins. One member offered to pay for these for two months.
In 1942 the church paid the debt and burned the mortgage, at which time we had a gala homecoming, with many of our former members proud to be in attendance.
In 1943 the first organ was purchased and duly dedicated.
Mrs. Clyde E. Ruckman, wife of the pastor, worked hard with the junior and primary groups and much was accomplished with the Ruckmans’ ministry. In 1946, she organized and directed a Junior Choir of nearly forty voices.
From the closing paragraph of “Historical Statement of the Torrance Methodist Church” (1948):
“At present there is much improvement being made in our main building. We hope to continue growing, working and praying together, that our future and the future of our Church will be something from which our children can receive comfort and inspiration.”
In the year 1953, we purchased the house at 1542 El Prado, directly across from the church, as a parsonage (this was later sold). The former parsonage on Manuel Street was then used for office space and classrooms.
May 13, 1953, El Portal began as a monthly newsletter. From the first issue: “The name chosen‚ ‘El Portal,’ meaning ‘The Door,’ suggests both the local setting and the religious significance of the publication” (see John 10:7).
Three levels of a new educational building were built and consecrated in 1954 as the church began to grow. The church kitchen was moved to the basement level, adjacent to a new dining area and meeting room, which is now Wesley Hall. In 1957 the “old building‚” was enlarged to create offices and a “Friendship Room.”
Did you know that in 1957, more than 60% of our nation, on average, belonged to a church? In that same year, Torrance rated less than 25%.
The year 1961 marked the culmination of an almost impossible dream. Ground was broken on January 15, and construction began with the erection of a new sanctuary at the corner of El Prado and Manuel streets. The bell tower reaches a commanding 75 feet into the air. The new, beautiful sanctuary was used for the first time on October 1 of that year. The old sanctuary, no longer needed for worship services, was converted to a social/recreation hall.
A large new parsonage was built and ready for occupancy in 1962. It is located 1 blocks east of the church, on El Prado.
In 1963, Rev. Nagel organized a “Fishermans Club.” They met once a month for dinner at the church and then went out calling.
The original church kitchen, which had been used for a classroom and for storage since 1954, was entirely remodled and furnished with state-of-the-art equipment in 1964, making it much easier to entertain large fellowship groups.
In 1967 a library on the patio was added, which was devotedly cared for by Eloise Enger until her untimely death in 1982. The Crib Room was completely revamped in 1967. Also in that year, the debt was paid and the mortgage for the new sanctuary was burned.
Having completed some of the largest dreams, the church then turned its attention to the mission field. The congregation began working on a church in Colima, Baja California, Mexico in 1968. Most of the labor was supplied by the youth and by June of that year it was nearly completed.
In 1969 a Samoan congregation began meeting in the sanctuary, bringing a new culture to blend with existing church life.
In 1970 a long-time dream was realized: A beautiful new pipe organ and chimes were installed in the sanctuary.
On April 25, 1971 our church was dedicated by Bishop Gerald Kennedy. Churches can only be dedicated when they are debt free. During the 11:00 a.m. worship service the mortgage was burned by the District Superintendent, Dr. Melvin Talbert.
In 1971 the need and the money were found to make sizable contributions to begin a sanctuary for a United Methodist Church in Valencia, and to help replace a fire damaged organ at Redondo Beach First UMC.
Also during 1971 our church was used for meetings of the Torrance Adult Education Alcohol and Drug abuse program, and the Alanon groups were invited to begin meeting at our church.
In 1972 our church celebrated 50 years of ministry. Our pastor at that time, Dr. Ragsdale, shared this greeting in the program:
WELCOME!A fiftieth anniversary is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people. It is a happy and wonderful occasion. I take great pleasure in extending this welcome to former members, life-time members and present day members who gather today to celebrate fifty great years in the life of this Church. To the former pastors and associate pastors I give a special welcome, knowing that present-day achievements were made possible by the accomplishments they wrought.
We will visit together and in our reminiscences we will laugh a little and weep a little and glow warmly with our remembering. But let us acknowledge that the past serves its purpose best when it is seen as a prologue to the future. With this in mind I propose a slogan: “Hats off to the past; coats off to the future!”
-Dr. Ray W. Ragsdale, Senior Minister
The Meals-on-Wheels was organized at this time with eight churches raising funds and recruiting volunteers. Eleanor Ragsdale was instrumental in this organization. The first meals were cooked and packed for delivery in what is now the Fetu Ao First Samoan UMC on Marcelina. This program brings hot meals to homebound people.
In 1973, a second parsonage was purchased at 2076 W. 230th Street to house an associate pastor. Also, at a cost of $23,300, the church basement was remodeled to make more Sunday school classrooms.
The “Happy Seniors” was organized June 28, 1976 under the guidance of the Rev. Paul I. Hershey and the splendid leadership of Bob Reid.
On April 14, 1978, the mortgage was burned on the El Prado parsonage.
In April of 1989 the Torrance Historical Society designated our original church building as an “historic building” of the city, and placed a plaque at its entrance. Also in 1989, the sanctuary received new carpeting and an upgrade to the sound system.
In 1990 a major remodeling took place. The upstairs classroom in the education building was refurbished and made into two classrooms. That freed the room next to the main entrance of the administration building. This was converted into a new Friendship Room, which is now also used for the 8:15 a.m. worship service. At this time, extensive renovation was done on the offices. Beginning with two small pastor’s offices, a totally open and unsecure office for the secretary, and a friendship room, the renovation provided two good-sized offices for pastoral use, an enclosed office for the secretary, and had enough room left for a small workroom and record storage room.
In January of 1992, the mortgage for the 230th Street Parsonage was paid. In 1994 the sanctuary was brightened with fresh paint, just a week after the disastrous Northridge earthquake. We weathered the earthquake with only minor plaster cracking and some compression of a stained glass window pane which finally broke-with the help of a vandal over a year later. The window was repaired by Judson Studios, the same company that originally made the windows.
In order to make our facility a little more disabled friendly, we refurbished a restroom in order to accommodate wheelchairs, and with a very timely donation, installed a chair lift to the choir loft.
In 2004, a major ($350,000) renovation to the social hall was undertaken. The walls and floors were refinished; new basketball and volleyball standards, new lighting, all new windows and doors were installed. And fittingly, the first group in the church to enjoy the new room was the community outreach lunch.
We share our facility
Many congregations and community groups have called our church “home” at some time. Several Samoan and Korean congregations, two of which became chartered United Methodist Church congregations have their roots here. Most recently, the North Gardena UMC shared our church until a new home was found and readied for them.
Our church houses several Alanon, Naranon and Alateen groups, depending on their needs. A group for the developmentally disabled, called “The Spot‚” also uses the facility. We regularly feed over one hundred homeless, low-income and elderly persons each fourth Saturday at our community outreach luncheon.
For 10 years we housed the Public Health Foundation’s WIC (women, infant and children) program, serving more than 250 clients each day. In 1995, when they received a large grant to expand their operation, they decided to move to a larger location, because our facility couldn’t handle their client increase.
1921-23 Gordon Reigler
1923-24 J.W. Morris
1924-26 Fred Essig
1926-27 Alex Lyall
1927-31 R.A. Young
1931-33 Kemp J. Winkler
1933-36 Carl Allen
1936-38 Bernard C. Brewster
1938-40 Harry G. Banks
1940-45 Harry Branton
1945-49 Clarence E. Ruckman
1949-52 Clarence Miller
1952-59 John L. Taylor
1959-63 Gilbert S. Zimmerman
1963-71 Arthur L. Nagel
1971-75 Ray W. Ragsdale
1975-84 Truman A. Barrett
1984-96 David J. Harada
1996-98 Natalie Houghtby-Haddon
1998-06 Joanne Satterburg
2006-14 Bob L. Isip
2014- Stacy Dickson
1953-54 Wayne V. Kobes
1954-58 Donald J. Shelby
1958-60 Peter K.H. Lee
1960-65 Edward D. Goodell (*)
1963-65 Richard Wong
1965-66 Richard R. Hansen
1967 Samuel Hilburn (*)
1968 Ray Thompson (**)
1968-70 Fred Brossmer
1969-70 Francis Baldwin (*)
1971-73 James P. Riggs
1973-84 Carroll N. Parker
1974-76 Paul I. Hershey (*)
1977-79 Eugene Bell (*)
1981-87 Wayne C. Byham (*)
1984-85 Stephanie M. Perrin
1985-88 James K. Brewster
1988-90 Kathleen Ross
1994-96 Gail S.N. Messner
2002-08 Mark F. Sturgess, Pastor of Discipleship
* Minister of Visitation
** Assistant Pastor