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The Jewel in Our Backyard – Pioneer Chapel

When you think of what the realtors call a “Colonial Charmer,” do you picture a row of clapboard Pioneer Chapel - Eden United Church of Christ, Hayward CAhouses in Boston or Philadelphia? No need to go that far to visit an historic and lovely Colonial! We have a beautiful example on our campus – our own Pioneer Chapel. The colonials might have scratched their heads and wondered what happened to their prim, no-nonsense style.

According to the late Eleanor Sekerak, an Eden member and long-time Hayward High School teacher, Pioneer Chapel’s now-unknown architect succumbed to the Victorian wiles of his day and added an eclectic mix of decorative flourishes and architectural features to its interior and exterior. We also have Jim Fryer to thank for his work in placing the chapel on the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historic Resources.

Pioneer Chapel was first dedicated in 1867, two years after the founding of Eden Congregational Church, which until then had met on the second floor of a dry goods store on the corner of Watkins and B St. The redwood chapel cost $3,200 to erect and stood on the southwest corner of A St. and First St. They funded the project partly by selling pew assignments to the highest bidders! Pride and progress followed. The bell was added in 1871, a wood furnace in 1879, and a reed organ in 1885 (cost: $200). The sanctuary was lit by eight oil chandeliers that had to be filled by hand every Sunday.

In 1887, booming growth of the congregation necessitated the addition of two rooms to the back of the chapel and raising the whole building to add a basement kitchen and two classrooms. The lovely curved pews were added in 1902 (cost: $412) and the reed organ replaced with a used theater organ (Wurlitzer-Hope-Jones) in 1935 (cost: $1000). One of the showpieces of Pioneer Chapel is the gorgeous black walnut altar, hand-made by member O. B. Paulson from trees that had been planted at the time of the original chapel construction (c. 1867) and a donated headboard. Waste not, want not in true New England and pioneer spirit.

How did Pioneer Chapel, and indeed our modern church building, end up on Birch at Grove? The oft told tale sounds so simple: member and benefactor Edmund Jensen drove to a hilltop outside the city limits in February 1945 and scouted the local landscape. He spotted what he considered to be this fine location, consulted the owner, wrote a personal check to obtain the option to build, and by March the congregation approved the purchase. While one wonders if it was a bit more complicated than that (and certainly the funding was), let’s enjoy the happy story!

We can prove the fantastic story of physically moving Pioneer Chapel on June 2, 1947 as we have the wonderful photos. The cupola was removed, the chapel loaded onto a flatbed truck, and with half the membership walking in escort fashion, the whole building was rolled north on Foothill Blvd. and left up Bridge St. (now named Grove Way) to face northeast on Birch St. more or less where Oliver Hall is now. It was reported that the trundling building missed hitting a tavern on the corner by three inches. Member and phone company engineer Bob Peterson rode astride the chapel roof lifting the power lines up and over the roof as the chapel passed beneath. If you have a better tale than that, let’s hear it! The organ, furnace and cupola came along separately.

The disassembly and reassembly of all the various parts of the chapel, organ, etc. was largely the work of the parishioners over time. Remarkably, there was only one service missed in the chapel during this whole process. As part of the campus renovation of 2001-2007, Pioneer Chapel was jacked up, backed up, moved to its current location facing south on Grove Way. Concerned onlookers held their breath as it squeezed past our west wing and rolled dangerously close to San Lorenzo Creek. It is now rented by Refuge Center Baptist Church on Sundays, used for special occasions by Eden and rented to others for weddings, recitals, etc. It was proudly displayed on a recent city walk by the Hayward Historical Society.

Pioneer Chapel is a beautiful and beloved part of our church family, and a link to our dedicated members and long heritage in Hayward. On Sunday, Feb 22, immediately after worship service, the 150th Anniversary Committee will host a brief open house at Pioneer Chapel. We will play a DVD of Eleanor Sekerak’s Sept 2000 talk about the architectural and design features of the chapel. All are welcome!