The Piru United Methodist Church hangs on, comforted in its old age by an odd combination of colorful history and Hollywood.
It has survived earthquakes, windstorms and a dwindling congregation through its long years.
This holy morning, a large white candle on the altar will be lighted to signify the birth of Jesus Christ, member and church trustee Viola Acosta noted. Led by the Rev. Chuck Mabry, the congregation will follow a book of Methodist worship and sing hymns.
The Christmas morning message, Mabry said, will be one of joy and hope.
“The concept of hope,” he said, “is necessary to help the Piru church keep a sense of possibility and a reason for them to be there.”
Beyond that, similarities to most other churches end.
The church’s sanctuary is a time warp, packing more than 120 years of old school. It was built in 1890 as the linchpin of Piru founder and builder David Caleb Cook’s vision for the town as “a second Garden of Eden.”
It retains its original bell, rung via a rope that hangs behind the front doors and runs through a small hole in the ceiling up to the truncated steeple’s belfry. The original wooden seats — 12 across in eight rows, divided by a center aisle — give it the look of a schoolmarm’s classroom. The stained-glass windows are rife with brilliant yellows, reds, oranges, greens, purples and blues; some are originals and others have the names of Cook and other founding members etched in black ink on the bottom panes.
On cold winter mornings, parishioners wear blankets on their laps and legs during worship, as the sanctuary walls sport only two crude, inadequate heaters.
The pipe organ is rare, said by some to be one of just seven of its kind in the world, and dates back to the Civil War era. Unfortunately, much of it sits in disrepair in large wooden crates in the adjoining social room, still hamstrung from the damage it suffered in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Both the organ and the church are county historic landmarks.
The steeple used to be taller but was lopped off, likely in the late 1920s, for fear that strong Santa Ana winds would topple the spire, noted Floyd Legan Jr., who wrote a history booklet on the place in the 1970s.
Everything is old, even the massive bougainvillea bush outside — a good 10 feet tall, nearly as thick and in bright magenta bloom on a sunny, crisp December morning.
“It’s been there for years,” Acosta said.
Be it ever so crumbled and aging, the small church trundles on, barely.
FEW IN THE FLOCK
It’s a tiny congregation. Acosta and others say barely a handful attend services regularly out of a membership that only numbers in the 20s; Piru, several noted, is now a largely Catholic community. Mabry is only a part-time minister.
Still, he talked of the church’s traditional role as a familiar fixture, a connection to the community.
“The number of participants has declined dramatically, but it is still a significant institution in Piru itself, partly because of its history,” Mabry said.
Asked how special the place is to him, the 88-year-old Legan replied simply that “you’ll find that my footprints have walked all over it, in more ways than one” for more than half a century.
“There’s a small group of us trying to keep it up,” Legan added. “It’s a very historic building. It has something to do with the early days, the days of the ranchos.”
Last Sunday, Mabry presided over four worshippers, including Legan. They prayed, made community announcements and sang such familiar hymns as “Joy to the World” and “O, Come All Ye Faithful.”
Maria “Chacha” Troyke stepped up to the altar and lighted the fourth advent candle, a symbol of purity, that day.
“I love it,” Troyke, who has lived in Piru most of her 57 years, said afterward. “It’s a joy to be here — this church and the meaning of coming here. The pastor gives you hope. It helps me with life — and the problems that come with life.”
She said she’s unemployed “like everyone else” — though fortunate that her husband has a job.
For Troyke and the others, the church is temporary refuge from the real world, especially during a season whose meaning is often buried amid Christmas commercialism.
The church, though, is not immune to secular forces: Around here, Hollywood helps pay the bills.
Or as Stephanie Acosta put it, “What really sustains the church is the movie and TV companies.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Hollywood has fallen in love with the church’s classic look. So much so that Stephanie Acosta, Viola’s daughter and like her mom a church trustee, handles filming requests. The sign out front, right after detailing the church’s regular 9:30 a.m. Sunday services, lists Stephanie’s phone number.
The biggest part of its screen appeal, she said, is that it resembles an old-fashioned church from anywhere in the nation, but especially the South.
Earlier this year, the church stood in as a Texas parochial school for an episode of “Desperate Housewives.” Star Eva Longoria, Acosta said, signed the church’s guest book. HBO’s campy vampire series “True Blood,” set in Louisiana, has come to Piru and used the church to replicate a Bayou State place of worship.
The FX series “Justified,” Acosta noted, has used the church more than once for the show’s town hall meetings, set in Kentucky Appalachia.
This spring, the just-opened Matt Damon-Scarlett Johansson film “We Bought a Zoo” filmed at the church.
“We had a bear walking around here,” Acosta said matter of factly.
Willie Nelson set foot there several years back for one of the “Dukes of Hazzard” movies. Clint Eastwood filmed a “Space Cowboys” scene there more than a decade ago.
Piru has long been a Hollywood magnet, ever since part of the 1910 silent film “Ramona,” starring Mary Pickford, was shot in the area; filming at the church goes back at least several decades.
Viola Acosta and her sister, Claudina Root, laughed remembering the time Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton came to the church sometime in the 1980s to shoot a Christmas movie — in July. It was a typical summer day in Piru, with the temperature near 100 degrees.
“We were roasting outside,” Root recalled, “and everyone inside the church (for the scene) had to wear these heavy coats and scarves.”
Nevertheless, Root and the Acostas marveled at Hollywood’s ability to make it look like Christmas — with help from one of those big snow-making machines.
“It looked pretty,” Root remarked.
Mabry said he has no problems with the church being used for such shoots as long as it is appropriate material. It does provide a little income for a church with limited resources, he noted.
The camera lens loves the church’s looks. It was designed in the Carpenter Gothic style, a picturesque architectural rendering popular for wooden homes and small churches in the mid-to-late 19th century. Its hallmarks are pointed-arch windows, steeply pitched roofs, steep gables and towers.
Carpenter Gothic churches and homes still can be found in most regions of the country. Perhaps the most famous example is the Iowa house that Grant Wood used for the background of his iconic 1930 painting “American Gothic.”
A TOWN IS BORN
The church, and the town, wouldn’t be here if not for Cook, a devout Methodist who made a small fortune publishing religious tracts and Sunday school materials in Elgin, Ill., and then came west in the mid-1880s to escape the harsh Midwest winters and muggy summers that contributed to his coughing spells and poor health.
Cook reportedly sent scouts to look for the most suitable climate. In 1887, accounts say, he purchased about 13,000 acres of the old Rancho Temescal and laid out his idyllic town of Piru — then called Piru City.
He envisioned what some accounts say was referred to as a second or new Garden of Eden — a serene alternative community for puritans and teetotalers who wanted to escape the wild frontier pueblo called Los Angeles.
Cook built the Methodist church (near the corner of what is now Center and Park streets), a hotel (still standing, at Center and Main streets) and his residence at the top of Park Street, a huge, three-story Queen Anne style home now called the Newhall Mansion. The hotel and the mansion are also historic landmarks.
At first, Legan said, the church congregation met under the limbs of a spreading California live oak in Cook’s yard, then for a few years at a small building that doubled as a schoolhouse before the present church sanctuary was erected in 1890.
Near the church, Cook planted a garden with only fruits specified in the Bible — such as apricots, dates, grapes, figs, olives and pomegranates. He also planted thousands of acres of orchards with oranges, walnut and peppers, among other things.
At the time, Cook had few neighbors — a few Mexican and Spanish descendants in adobe homes at nearby Rancho Camulos and a scattering of Tataviam Indian dwellings. The Tataviams migrated to the area in the fifth century and lived in about 20 villages in the Piru Creek and upper Santa Clara River watersheds; a segment of them were later referred to as Piru Indians. The town’s name derives from a Tataviam term (pronounced pea-roo) for the tule reeds along the creek they used in making baskets.
Cook, the story goes, forbade his workers from drinking, smoking, swearing and participating in many secular activities.
But Cook’s utopic Piru didn’t last long. Some accounts blame that on the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad line to Ventura from Saugus in 1887, which eventually opened the area to modern civilization and the types of people he didn’t want around. By 1902, accounts say, Cook left and returned to Illinois. He died in 1927.
A beautiful sound, Silenced
All that history and Hollywood money hasn’t helped the pipe organ function in the 17 years since the earthquake.
Including insurance money, members say, the church has plowed low six figures into the organ’s repair. It is squabbling with a contractor over work done and what remains to be finished.
The organ, Stephanie Acosta insisted, is still in the process of being fixed — but few have expertise in this arena.
“It’s not like you can go downtown and find someone who repairs rare pipe organs,” she noted. “It’s a very fine art to work on these rare organs.”
It was built in the 1860s by the William A. Johnson Organ Co. of Westfield, Mass., and reportedly later shipped around South America’s treacherous Cape Horn to a San Francisco church. It was bought for the Piru church for $280 by Hugh Warring of the locally famous Warring family and installed in 1935.
The organ was housed in the wall behind the altar; there, the keyboard remains intact, as do wooden pipes — in tune, Legan said — and a few wooden racks ready to hold metal pipes. But they sit piled in crates in the other room; like Humpty Dumpty after the great fall, they need someone to piece the organ back together again.
It is an intricate jigsaw puzzle. The organ has about 750 to 870 individual pipes, ranging in length from 16 feet to one 9 inches long that is half the diameter of a pencil. It uses long strips of wood called trackers to connect the keys to the pipes.
Legan recalled fondly the days when the towering organ filled the church with music. This is an old-school organ that does not produce an instant sound, he noted; you’d hear a click when the organist hit a key.
“It’s like Pinocchio with strings,” he said, “except these have slats that open the vents.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
In a way, the dormant pipe organ symbolizes the church’s struggles. Few feel that as acutely as the Acosta family.
Viola Acosta, 76, was baptized in the church, has been a member since she was 7 and in 1956 was married in it. Root, her 73-year-old sister, was married there the next year; Root remembers going to Sunday school there when she was 5.
Stephanie Acosta, 46, was baptized in that church, as was her brother, Steve.
They are all descendants of a Yaqui Indian from Sonora, Mexico, named Carmelo Dominguez who came to this area around 1850.
Stephanie Acosta’s grandmother, Guadalupe Dominguez Ramirez, grew up as one of 16 siblings in the eponymous Dominguez Canyon, an offshoot of Piru Canyon. When she died at age 101 in 2009, her services were held in the church.
For them, it’s a family affair. As church trustees, Stephanie and Viola are responsible for arranging services, paying bills, cleaning and general upkeep; Steve and one of Stephanie’s sons do yard work, carpentry and the like.
Recently, school-age vandals broke a couple of the stained-glass windows; the bill, covered largely by insurance, was about $4,000. Stephanie was so upset that she took crayon to the sidewalk and scrawled, “God is watching you.”
The Acostas and the others want to see the church continue. If it wasn’t for the film industry, Steve Acosta noted, “we might have had to close the doors.”
He was one of the four worshippers last Sunday. After services, he inspected a repaired organ piece — “one of the high-note pipes,” he said — and pointed out the original stained-glass windows, among other details in the dignified old church.
“It is actually part of the soul of our family,” he said quietly.
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