“Let’s open the gates!” Pastor David Stoker called out gaily – and with that exhortation, First Presbyterian Church’s double doors swung inward, and the congregation’s nearly two-year wait to return home finally was fulfilled.
The sanctuary in downtown Napa that has endured for 142 years became a house of worship again Sunday morning with the church’s first service in its home space since the 2014 earthquake. Where shards of plaster and colored glass had once riddled the floor, fresh white paint and new burgundy carpeting gave the chapel an airy, light-filled atmosphere belying its age. Surrounded by spotless walls lit by repaired windows, hundreds of members, friends and dignitaries packed the pews and balcony for hymns, prayer and a celebration of a landmark – and a congregation – reborn.
“We’re so thrilled to be back in God’s house,” Stoker said as he took his place behind the lectern where he had not stood for nearly 23 months. “It’s celebration time!” the minister told his worshipers who, even before starting into the hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” shook the hands of those with whom they had prayed and sung in the church gymnasium since the West Napa Fault violently woke before dawn on Aug. 24, 2014.
When the shaking stopped, the space where First Presbyterian has worshiped since 1874 was the picture of chaos. Light poked through huge gaps in the shattered stained-glass windows, debris and dust covered nearly every surface, and a large loudspeaker had broken away and crashed to the lectern – exactly where the minister would have been standing had the quake struck seven hours later.
As church members prepared for their return, the scary and uncertain first hours after the quake remained fresh for many.
“We were immediately concerned about our church,” remembered Keith Orr, a church usher and a member since 1958. “I got here the day after the quake – I guess God really protected us, because things that are broken can be replaced. But we were concerned about the foundation; we were concerned whether it would collapse. It was a sad time.”
While First Presbyterian moved its services to its neighboring gym, church elders plotted out the rebirth of their sanctuary. While the building escaped serious structural harm, the cosmetic damage gave rise to a $2 million project that included a concrete foundation to take weight off the old brick pilings, as well as new walls, flooring, seismic retrofits, an expanded greeting area and wheelchair-accessible restrooms.
Three-quarters of the repair bill came from the church’s estimated 400 members and the rest from other donations, including $25,000 from the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund. The abundance of helping hands impressed Mayor Jill Techel, whom the church chose to lead a procession with Stoker from the gym down Third Street to the chapel doorway, where the two cut open a ceremonial red ribbon before leading worshipers inside.
“I prayed that we could keep our people safe and find a positive road to recovery,” Techel said of the quake’s aftermath during the rededication service. “I’m thankful for having a community where people help each other. Napa showed the world how resilient it is and how it supports people in a crisis.”
Even when Stoker honored Mike Gibson — a retired oil company executive who managed the repair and renovation effort — with a ceremonial hammer mounted on a wooden plaque, Gibson immediately shared the credit with his fellow worshipers. Asking each group of helpers to stand up, he watched as painters and plumbers rose to their feet – followed by engineers, those who had swept up the post-quake debris and even those who simply had prayed for the project’s success, until nearly the entire audience was standing with him.
The restoration of First Presbyterian will continue through the summer and possibly into autumn, with the reinstallation of the organ repainting (a pianist and 10-piece orchestra provided Sunday’s musical accompaniment) of the exterior in its original white color, and the righting of the rooftop weather vane that has remained askew since the quake. Cosmetic fixes are planned for the library and offices, and the sanctuary will receive its first modern climate-control system.
A California Historical Landmark and Napa’s oldest surviving house of worship, the First Presbyterian sanctuary at 1333 Third St. is nearing the completion of its revival. But the lesson Stoker sought to share with its members was to remember how they had carried on without it, even as their return to their longtime spiritual home brought them happiness.
“It’s been helpful for our congregation not to worship in a regular sanctuary these last 22 months, because we’ve been able to see rather vividly that the church is not a building, but a group of committed people worshiping and serving the Lord,” he told church members who had been listening to him from folding chairs since 2014. “And it was a constant reminder that the church is the people, not the building.
“But it’s going to be so nice to be in here on Christmas Eve, holding our candles aloft and singing ‘Silent Night’ with the beautiful strains of the organ.”