Oakhurst celebrates its charming 120-year-old church

The Fresno BeeJune 13, 2014 

— In this foothill community that is a gateway to Sierra history, the Little Church on the Hill at Oakhill Cemetery on Highway 41 still stands tall after 120 years.

The steep-roofed church with a small cross on top has a charming look, the centerpiece on a 20-acre site of manicured grounds and umbrellas of trees.

Two exterior walls have been re-sided and new stained-glass windows that replicate the original ones have been installed in a restoration and preservation campaign in recent years.

The church still carries the period of the late 1800s -- the eight rows of wooden pews that accommodate 85 people, the wooden piano and organ, the stained glass, including a window behind the pulpit that features an angel with a chalice.

"I think it's beautiful," says Kay Good, a board member with the Little Church Foundation nonprofit that coordinates restoration and preservation efforts and works with the Madera County Cemetery District.

Although the church still lacks air-conditioning and heating, it is still used for funerals and all-denominational services on holidays, including Ash Wednesday, Memorial Day, All-Souls Day and Veterans Day.

On Friday, June 20, an Ice Cream Social and Rededication Ceremony will be held 4 to 7 p.m. to celebrate the church's 120th anniversary. Special tours also will be available, with leaders highlighting the history.

The church was consecrated on June 20, 1894, on Chapel Hill on Road 425B.

In 1957, officials wanting to protect the church from vandalism had it moved to its current site, less than a mile away from Chapel Hill.

In 1994, the exterior walls were re-sided with sugar pine for the church's 100th anniversary celebration. But the sugar pine came under attack by the area's notorious red-headed woodpeckers that "are merciless," says Jackie Mallouf chairwoman of the board.

So work began all over again in 2007.

The solution was Hardie board siding, which combines cement and particle board, lasts a minimum 50 years, and is impervious to woodpecker damage.

"We're saved by modern technology," Mallouf says.

With two walls redone at a cost of $23,000, the foundation is working to raise another $20,000 to re-side the front and back walls.

Roots run deep

In the early 1890s, work began on on a church in Fresno Flats with volunteer labor and sugar pine lumber from local mills, according to the Yosemite Visitors Bureau in Oakhurst.

The mission of the church was authorized by the Episcopal Diocese of California and granted by Father D.O. Kelley of Fresno. He started 10 other churches and missions in the San Joaquin Valley, including Madera, Reedley, Tulare, Merced, Bakersfield, Modesto and Lodi.

Father James McGowan moved his family from Salinas to Fresno Flats in 1892 and supervised the building of Christ Church. There are no records of the time it took to build the church. But, in those days, everyone turned out to lend a hand, whether it was raising a barn, home or church.

Up came the church, and the consecration took place in 1894.

In 1938, the Episcopal Diocese and the Presbyterian Church agreed to jointly oversee and maintain the building. The church was renamed Christ United Church.

Church board member Adele Bartholomew, remembers it on Chapel Hill.

"We had a lot of fun sliding down the hill on cardboard over the pine needles," says Bartholomew, whose mother, Elizabeth Bissett, and grandmother, Alice Wilson, played the church piano.

The church held its final service on Chapel Hill in 1953. Four years later, it was moved to Oakhill Cemetery.

In the early 1990s, the community grew and so did interest in buying the cemetery's prime property along Highway 41. Patrons lobbied the California State Historical Resources Commission to designate the church and cemetery as a Point of Historical Interest, which came in 1994.

"We made the building and property a historical listing, so it can't be touched," Mallouf says.

The listing also became a beacon for people from all around the world -- many Yosemite National Park visitors -- to stop and take a peek at the church.

A sampling from 2005-2007 shows visitors from 23 countries signed the church guest book. In a recent 10-month period, more than 600 people visited.

"One of the fascinating things for visitors is to see a pioneer church still standing," Mallouf says. "We're the only standing building left from 1894. The reason is the others fell down -- all made of sugar pine."

A good feeling

Community members say there still is a need for the church to exist another 100 years.

The Rev. Gordon Kamai, pastor of Christ Church Anglican in Oakhurst, says he gets a good feeling at the Little Church on the Hill when he conducts community services on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

"It's very heartening to see veterans show up here," he says.

Suzanne Harvey, another board member, says the church rallies the community, especially on holidays. The Episcopal and Catholic churches combine to present All-Souls Day services, which feature a candlelight procession. In a nod to church preservation, "we can't have real candles," says Harvey, adding it is OK. "We use the lights with batteries instead."

The continuing restoration and preservation effort also inspires people who just want to do something meaningful for the community.

Michael Costa is a "candidate" in Oakhurst's annual honorary mayor contest, which runs April 10 to July 10. People "vote" by pledging $1 to a candidate, who runs for a nonprofit. Costa's nonprofit is The Little Church Foundation.

For fundraising events, he has dressed up in period clothing as Father D.O. Kelley. So far, the campaign has raised about $2,500.

"You read in the news about bad happening all the time," Costa says. "I want to change that with hope for restoring the church."

Other people say the church's charm should remain for generations to come.

"When you come down Deadwood (Mountain), you see the lights coming from the windows, and it's spectacular," says Dave Nemeth, board treasurer. "The doors are open, and it's a very welcoming environment."

Belva Bare, manager of Madera County Cemetery District, agrees: "It's charming and endearing. It has a good feeling about it."

If you go

On June 20, the Little Church on the Hill on Highway 41 in Oakhurst will celebrate its 120th anniversary with an Ice Cream Social and Rededication Ceremony, 4 to 7 p.m. Special tours also will be available, with leaders highlighting the history.

How to help

To donate to the Little Church on the Hill's continuing restoration and preservation, go to www.savethelittlechurch.org or call the Madera County Cemetery District office at (559) 674-8826

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304, rorozco@fresnobee.com or @ronorozco_bee on Twitter.

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