A History of Restoration and Renewal
Founding the Parish
In February, 1877, weary no doubt of making the hour-and-a-half trek by horse car on Sunday mornings to the nearest church in Oakland, Episcopalians on the faculty of the young University of California and in the community of Berkeley rented a room in a cottage near the campus, installed a portable altar and a small organ, and held the first service of what was to become St. Mark’s parish. They had consulted with the Right Reverend William Ingraham Kip, first bishop of California, who had encouraged them to found a mission church. They called it the Bishop Berkeley Mission, in honor of the eighteenth-century Irish divine after whom the town had been named.
Before the next year was half over, the mission congregation, led during the first few weeks by the Reverend Dr. J. T. Wheat, a clergyman from the east, had become a parish. A building costing $1200 had been erected at the corner of Bancroft Way and Ellsworth Street and had been consecrated as St. Mark’s by Bishop Kip. Four years after its founding, when the first rector, the Reverend G. W. Mayer, resigned, there were 100 communicants. During the tenure of the next two rectors—the Reverend E. L. Greene (also a distinguished though eccentric professor of botany at the university) and the Reverend G. A. Easton—the parish continued to grow. By the time the Reverend G. E. Swan became rector, in 1895, the church building had been enlarged and relocated towards the east, and there were 263 communicants. Eight years later, there were 550. Although the number of congregants has fluctuated over the years, the history of St. Mark’s continues to be what it was at the beginning: a history of restoration and renewal undertaken in the name of its mission of “celebrating God’s inclusive love.”
The New St. Mark’s
Bending all his efforts toward the building of an edifice that would accommodate the fast growing congregation, the Reverend Swan saw the completion of a new St. Mark’s—one of California’s very earliest buildings in the Mission Revival style—in February 1902, in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first services. Of all the pioneer Berkeley churches, St. Mark’s is the only one that has kept its same location throughout all the ensuing years. Swan was also responsible for building the first choir—at that time of men and boys—a symbol of the importance that the ministry of music was to retain in the parish up to the present day.
Following Swan the builder in 1904, the parish enjoyed for the next fifteen years the rectorship of the Reverend Edward Lambe Parsons, a clergyman of extraordinary intelligence, wide sympathies, and broad vision. He defined anew for the parish its mission to the university; he insisted on its vocation in the community. Chosen bishop coadjutor in 1919, he became diocesan five years later and held the office with distinction until 1941, becoming widely known throughout the church in America for his compassionate advocacy of the Christian role in social justice.
His successor was the Reverend W. R. H. Hodgkin, unique amongst St. Mark’s rectors in that he had grown up in the parish. Prior to coming back to his home church, he had been vicar of All Souls’, like St. Clement’s, a mission of St. Mark’s at the time. His tenure (1919-33) is memorialized by a building named for him, as is his predecessor’s by the Parsons Library. The bishop brought him to the cathedral in 1933 to be archdeacon of the Diocese of California.
In 1934, the parish called the young and energetic J. Lindsay Patton as rector. By 1940, he succeeded, through a restoration campaign held over a three-year period, in ridding the church of the mortgage burdening it, and for this, says the history written for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding, he will “thankfully and eternally be remembered.” The funds raised also provided for the acquisition of a new and larger organ.
Resigning in 1944, the Reverend Patton was followed by the eighth rector, the Reverend Russell B. Staines. Some long-time parishioners still remember his vigorous leadership, his enthusiasm for work with students, his activity in the parish, in the diocese and the national church. During a difficult interim period at the nearby Church Divinity School of the Pacific, he became Acting Dean.
Two momentous events marked 1952 for the parish: one was the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of its founding; the other, less happy, was the departure of the Reverend Staines. But he left behind him a newly refurbished church, with fresh paint, new pews, new kneelers, new windows—and a young and active congregation. This was inherited by the Reverend Walter Williams, a forceful and dynamic preacher, who came to the parish after having worked for some years in the national church’s Department of Christian Education. It is, then, appropriate that his nine years at St. Mark’s be remembered in the Sunday School building that bears his name, and for which he had energetically planned.
Another priest whose thoughtful and provocative sermons were much appreciated followed Williams in 1962. This was George F. Tittmann, who served vitally and effectively for fifteen years, throughout the social turmoil of Berkeley in the sixties and seventies. With a keen interest in foreign missions, he encouraged parish concern for the wide issues of Christianity throughout the world. It is entirely fitting that the splendid free-standing altar of contemporary design in our chancel be dedicated to him, as is the striking new baptismal font.
Following the Reverend Tittmann’s tragic death in 1978, St. Mark’s called Philip A. Getchell, who had been a missionary in Brazil, to be its rector. Under his wise and compassionate leadership, the parish continued its missionary interests, its hereditary connection with the university community and the student Canterbury Foundation, and the active and committed ministry of its lay people in the church at parochial, diocesan, and national levels. It became one of the founding members of the Berkeley Sanctuary churches, dedicated to serving the undocumented immigrant population.
The First Woman Rector and Moving into the 21st Century
After thirteen years, the Reverend Getchell left to become dean of the cathedral in San Jose. His successor in 1993 was C. Robbins Clark, the first woman to hold the position, which she held longer than any other rector in the parish’s history, retiring in October 2010.
Early on in her tenure, sensing the parish’s historic commitment to renewal, she encouraged the congregation to undertake a careful study of what the restoration of the nearly one-hundred-year-old church would entail. It is not surprising that seismic retrofitting emerged as a major necessity, as did the considerable refurbishing and up-grading necessitated by some years of deferred maintenance. After much prudent planning, the parish decided in 1998 to undertake a capital campaign, “A New Century Dawns,” in the hope of raising $800,000 and possibly meeting a challenge goal of a million dollars. With the vigorous leadership of the rector and the devoted commitment of parishioners eager to reinvigorate the church’s mission, the first campaign and an energetic second effort far exceeded the goals, raising $1.7 million. This, together with the use of available parish funds, has enabled a solid and elegant restoration of the main church building, both inside and out. After six months of worshipping during the construction period at the University YWCA—with a portable altar recalling the original rented cottage, folding chairs, and gym mats stacked to one side—the congregation was exhilarated to be able to return to an extraordinarily handsome new facility, with a new roof, improved access (including an elevator from the parking garage to the four levels of church and parish hall), a new oak floor in the nave (noticeably improving the acoustics for a music-loving congregation), a renovated chapel, and an altogether lighter, clearer worship space. The recently completed revoicing of and additions to the fine Flentrop organ further enhance the liturgical experience that has always been seen as part of the parish’s mission.
Prior to her ministry with us, the parish had engaged, as TEC had encouraged churches to do, in meaningful discussion of homosexuality in relation to Christianity. In our case, this led to new understandings and openings. During Clark’s tenure, and faithfully following the bishop’s directives, we celebrated the first blessings of same-sex unions.
The restoration and renewal celebrated by the events of the festive celebration in April 2002 of the parish’s one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary affirm St. Mark’s place in the lives of its parishioners and its role in the community, the diocese, and beyond. As it has done since the beginning, the parish seeks to represent in its worship and mission, now and in the future, the best of the Anglican tradition in a vital relationship with the contemporary world.
(to be continued)