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Welcome to the First Congregational Church of San Francisco History Page!

We are 163 years old. As the third church organized in San Francisco, our congregation is very closely tied to the history of our city and country. As such, FCC reflects vast changes in culture, demographics, socio-economics, as well as understanding of faith and faith practice.

1849 to 1899: The First Fifty Years

Gold was discovered on January 24, 1848. Within a year, San Francisco was flooded with immigrants. One of those arriving was Reverend T. Dwight Hunt, who had been a young missionary in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Mr. Hunt arrived on the last Sunday in October, 1848, and was engaged as Chaplain of San Francisco within one week. On November 1, 1848, Mr. Hunt led the first service at 11 AM on that Sunday at a schoolhouse on Portsmouth Square. A marker identifying this site was recently placed on the Barbary Coast Trail. Other clergy arrived among the immigrants for the next several months and a letter was prepared to initiate the First Congregational Church on July 29, 1849. The first building was dedicated on February 10, 1850 at the corner of Jackson Street and Virginia Place. Church membership was initially difficult, growing from an original 8 to only 20 by the end of 1850 and 52 by the end of 1852.

A new building was dedicated in 1853 at California and Dupont Streets. Membership blossomed to several hundred by 1856. During this time of prolific growth in California, FCC sponsored Sunday concerts, The Cheerful Workers (a local mission), a kindergarten, the Choral Society, and the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor. The church growth led to the construction of a new gothic style building with a large steeple, dedicated May 19, 1872.

The efforts of First Congregational Church help to support 105 new churches across the West by 1899 as far away as Eureka, Nevada City, Fresno, Los Angeles, National City and Salt Lake City. Many Bay Area congregational churches were also created with the financial and missionary support of our former church members including Berkeley, Antioch, Stockton, Petaluma, Martinez, Niles, San Mateo and Santa Rosa.

1899 to 1949: The 1906 Earthquake and the Next Fifty Years

At the time of the earthquake, First Congregational Church had the largest Protestant church membership in San Francisco. The gothic steeple, a symbol of the 1872 building, toppled in the earthquake –shown in the above photo from the Museum of San Francisco. Subsequent damage to the building eventually led to a decision to demolish it and erect a new building, dedicated in 1915. The current building was designed with a skylight in the middle, and with a sturdy steel frame encased by poured concrete walls to resist the impact of future earthquakes. Much of the rebuilt church was enabled by the merger of Plymouth Church (once on Post Street near Webster Street) along with a major building fund drive. Doctor Charles Aked was instrumental in inspiring the congregation through this challenging time.

A special service creating the United Nations was held in our building in 1946. As a result of this ceremony, a collection of flags from around the world were mounted in the sanctuary for many years.

1949 to 1999: Fifty Years of Change

The history of First Congregational in recent times includes a marked shift towards setting forth new movements of church awareness. The members saw resurgence in popularity through the 1940′s and 1950′s only to see a decline through the 1960′s and 1970′s: with the Civil Right’t movement and the Vietnam War raging, people in San Francisco and young people in particular began questioning traditional institutions and institutional thinking. As a result of this, the church leaders began to explore options to provide space for community programs, and to possibly partner in management and ownership of the building. Some cosmetic modifications were made to the altar area of the sanctuary as a result of partnering agreements.

The church as served by Dr. William E. McCormack (1949 to 1960), whose sincere and strong leadership style renewed the church from what had been a very low ebb. He was followed by Dr. Ernest Heeren (1960 to 1962) and Dr. Harold Janes(1963 to 1965, when he died from a stroke). Reverend James Clark Brown provided inspirational leadership from 1966 to 1980. From 1977, the church also called Reverend Brita Gill, the first female minister called by FCC. Together they ministered effectively to a congregation that had strong liberals and strong conservatives, more elderly than young.

Dr. Roy H. Nyren was called in 1988. Roy requested that the congregation declare itself Open and Affirming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people which it did (18th nationally to do so). He also led us to adopt our statement of purpose in 1993. Dr. Nyren retired from FCC in 1995. Rev. James Lawer, serving as a senior minister between 1994 and 1996, broke ground both as the first openly gay man called minister at FCC as well as an innovator of new approaches to worship. In December 1999, the congregation called the Rev. Catherine Bohrman, who served actively until 2001. Rev. Cathy was originally hired in 1998 in a new concept called “term-limited”. In addition to called ministers, the congregation has many fond memories of interim, in-care and intern ministers over the years. In particular, First Congregational Church has provided internships for many outstanding ministers across the country.

1999 to Present

First Congregegational Church has embarked on a new journey of faith — a new spirit of being a re-”new start” church! Having grown smaller and being faced with several large capital projects on the Post and Mason building after the Loma Prieta Earthquake, the congregation eventually decided to sell the building to the Academy of Art University. Building 4 has been renovated and remains in use as a lecture hall and work rooms for the University.

The church Building 4 sale was completed in early 2001. First Congregational Church became a tenant at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church’s Urban Life Center at 1101 Franklin Street. The congregation purchased land at Polk and Bush Street in 2002. In 2003, the congregation secured a conditional use permit for the building site. In 2005, the congregation chose to move into 1323 Polk Street (across from the new building) as a temporary office location. Now, the congregation celebrates in Building 5, at the corner of Polk and Bush.

Another serendipitous event occurred in 2001. A minister with almost 20 years of experience in Germany at a sister denomination to the UCC, Wilfried Glabach, won a green card and was moved to come to San Francisco. Dr. Glaubach shepherded First Congregational Church of San Francisco for ten years, eventually moving the congregation into its current location, and deepened FCC’s relationship with the German speaking folks in the city. After Dr. Glaubach returned to Germany, FCC asked Rev. David Cowell to serve as a Designated Term Pastor. Rev. Cowell is committed to preaching the inclusive love of God and has been instrumental in creating a exciting worship and preaching experience, blending traditional and emergent styles of worship.

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