St. James’ Church marks 100 years of worship, service
Wilshire Center parish thrives on worship, music and service
Becoming a great metropolitan parish was probably not foremost in the mind of the Rev. Noel Porter when he became the first rector of St. James’ Church in 1911. With a monthly parish income of $12 and a total of 16 parishioners, Porter surely looked upon mere survival of the church (then located at Ardmore and Pico Boulevard) as his most pressing concern.
By 1915, the parish had grown to 250 members, and in 1916 St. James’ found new and larger quarters at the corner of Western and Monette. By 1920, St. James’ had again outgrown its space. Porter found an appropriate lot at the church’s current site on Wilshire Boulevard.
It is said that the vestry at the time did not have or want to spend the money needed to purchase the property, so Porter bought the land himself. When the parish was ready to invest in a lot, Porter offered to sell the land at the corner of Wilshire and St. Andrew’s Place for the original purchase price.
The current church building was completed in 1926, and consecrated by Bishop Joseph Horsfall Johnson, first bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles. Porter later went on to be elected bishop of Sacramento (now the Diocese of Northern California).
By 1947, when the Rev. George Barrett was called as rector, the congregation had grown to more than 1,500 communicants. Barrett implemented extensive renovations to the chapel and Parish Hall. During the 1950s, the parish expanded so rapidly and drew attendance from such a wide area that St. James’ established Christ Church Mission in the Leimert Park district of Los Angeles, which merged with the Church of Christ the Good Shepherd in 1958.
Barrett was the second of the five St. James’ rectors elected to bishop. In 1963, he became bishop of Rochester, New York, and later served as an assisting bishop for the Diocese of Los Angeles for nearly 30 years. The third was Ivol Curtis, who in 1960 became bishop suffragan of Los Angeles, and later bishop diocesan of the Seattle-based Diocese of Olympia.
In 1976, a fourth rector, Robert Terwilliger, was called as bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Dallas. Kirk Smith, now bishop of the Diocese of Arizona, served as rector of St. James’ from 1991 to 2003.
The 1950s also marked the beginning of a transition. For a generation, the church was the Episcopal hub of one of Los Angeles’ most prestigious neighborhoods, Hancock Park, home to some of the city’s most prominent citizens. By the late 1950s, desegregation began to remold the city. While some parishioners left, many stayed, and St. James’ welcomed immigrants from around the world who moved into the surrounding areas, many from nations with Anglican heritage.
Building a school, serving the community
In September 1968, under the leadership of the Rev. Samuel D’Amico, the parish opened St. James’ School in an apartment building a block from the church with D’Amico as its first headmaster.
St. James’ next rector, Robert G. Oliver, facilitated the expansion of the school. In 1981, the school moved into DeBell Hall, a 14-classroom structure directly north of the church. The church eventually acquired property to the north of the school, which paved the way for the further expansion of St. James’ School to Sixth Street.
Today, the school is energetic and thriving, thanks to the vision and support of St. James’ current rector, the Rev. Dr. Paul Kowalewski, who successfully recruited and appointed Deborah David as its head of school in 2011.
Since its 75th anniversary, the parish has grown into the busy city campus it is today. In addition to expanding the school, Oliver spearheaded the construction of St. James Manor, a 65-unit low-income senior housing center in 1986. Kirk Smith was involved in the expansion activities of the 1990s, which included establishing the Infant/Toddler Development Center (1995-2012), the ongoing Soup Kitchen Ministry (1995), and St. James’ Preschool (1997) which in February broke ground for a new campus on the church’s Gramercy lot.
In 1994, the new parish hall and office complex was completed, designed by renowned architect Johannes Van Tilburg, and a columbarium was built in the chapel under the leadership of the Rev. Albin P. Davis.
Over the years, the choir of St. James’ and the David John Falconer Memorial Organ have become internationally acclaimed, each in its own right. David Falconer, choirmaster at St. James’ from 1983 until his untimely murder in 1994, identified the need to replace the 1926 Kimball organ and advocated for acquiring the historic 1911 Murray Harris organ, then in storage after its removal from St. Paul’s Cathedral before its demolition in 1980.
After Falconer’s death, James Buonemani joined the staff as director of music in 1995 and oversaw the restoration and installation of the organ, adding the trompette-en-chamade and positiv divisions in the rear gallery of the church in 2000 and 2005. Buonemani continues to build on the parish’s great Anglican choir tradition. Among the choir’s many highlights have been three tours to England, where the choir held residencies at Westminster Abbey and, with Kowalewski, led a centennial parish pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral and other historic and significant religious sites.
St. James’ Church has for many years had a special relationship with the expatriate British community, including the British Consulate. After the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, St. James’ hosted a memorial service that was attended by hundreds of mourners, including pop star Michael Jackson.
Today St. James’ finds itself in a time of great opportunity as well as challenge. As the current rector, Kowalewski has worked tirelessly to bring the campus and operations of the parish into the second millennium, maintaining its roots in ancient traditions while developing innovative ways to engage the culture and be God’s people in a large, diverse urban center. Under his leadership recent improvements have included the Chapel of the Resurrection, the choir room, and in the church — renovated restrooms, new flooring, refinished furniture and a state-of-the-art digital communication system — all to enhance the beauty of worship for years to come.
–Adapted from a history of St. James that appeared in the service booklet for the centennial Eucharist.