Our Church History
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54 Years in the Making
1955 - 2009
It was in the 1950's, the Fabulous Fifties, that long ago decade of backyard barbecues, hula hoops and bunny hops. It was the time of chlorophyll toothpaste, 3-D movies and pink shirts under gray flannels over white bucks. It was the time of "I Like Ike" and "I Go Pogo." Two years before St. Stephen's was founded, the best-selling books of fiction were "The Silver Chalice" and "The Robe". For three years, the best-selling book of nonfiction was The Holy Bible. It was a good time to start a church.
Granada Hills was a growing suburb in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Once covered with citrus trees as a part of the immense George K. Porter holdings, the area was subdivided in 1927 from a real estate office at 17645 Chatsworth Street. In 1934, California Trust took over many properties that hadn't survived the Depression and the area began to grow, really blossoming from 1949 on. When the '50's began, the population was around 9,000. By 1954, it was nearly 20,000.
It really was a good time to start a church. And it was all up to a woman named Dorothy Murray. In the late summer of 1954, she stood alone at a front door in Granada Hills, the first of hundreds of doors she would approach. It was her job to survey the ENTIRE future parish and ask homeowners such questions as "Are you a Lutheran family?", "Which Lutheran church do you now attend?" and "If there were a Lutheran church in Granada Hills, would you worship there?" She had to determine if there was a need for a Lutheran church in the area.
Obviously a dedicated parish worker, Dorothy was helping Pastor Gordon Tollefson convince the Home Mission Department of the Evangelical Lutheran Church that they were needed in Granada Hills. The citizens responded enthusiastically to Dorothy's questions - they did want a church of their own nearby. So the ELC issued a "Grant In Aid" (gift) of $22,500 for expenses to begin and operate the first few months.
They began meeting at the Granada Hills Elementary School. More than 200 people attended that first service on November 4, 1954. The Lutherans of Granada Hills had meant what they said. They really would support a new church. Sunday after Sunday, the congregation grew. Now, Pastor Tollefson would have to build that church that had been promised.
On April 24, 1955, it all became official. The trial period was over. More and more people were coming regularly, so they officially organized as St. Stephen's Lutheran Church. The ELC loaned them $79,912 and four acres were purchased (for $11,525!) at Chatsworth Street and Gaynor Avenue. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held October 9, 1955, construction began on a facility which would eventually cost $45,456 and the first service was held in the new sanctuary (now the fellowship hall) on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1956. At the dedication service May 20, Dr. Gaylord Falde, President of the California District of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, officiated. Granada Hills now had a new Lutheran church. And it continued to grow. The baptized membership was 243 in 1955 and had expanded to 595 when Pastor Tollefson left (his last service was January 12, 1959) to serve the American Lutheran Church in Billings, Montana
The Rev. Grant V. Sorenson accepted the call as St. Stephen's second pastor. Coming to California from Minnesota, he saw the church reach one of its first milestones when the ELC loan was paid back in full, including interest. He also realized the need for Sunday School buildings. Groundbreaking for those took place in January of 1960. This major addition was completed and dedicated in 1962 at a cost of $34,145. During its construction, some property was purchased for $19,500 as the future site of a new and larger sanctuary. They knew they would soon outgrow their first one.
The inevitable groundbreaking took place in April of 1965 and the beautiful and inspiring present-day structure was completed at a cost of $556,180, and was dedicated on May 22, 1966. The "coffee hour" was also begun in 1966 and by 1968 the Sunday services were broadcast over KGIL radio
In June of 1969, when the membership had grown to 1,258, Pastor Sorenson returned to Minnesota. While St. Stephen's awaited a new pastor, Dr. James Kallas, Professor of Religion at California Lutheran College, delivered the Sunday sermons. In December of 1969, Pastor Ansle T. Severtson arrived and St. Stephen's began a whole new era of growth and service in the community.
The 70's saw the beginnings of Wednesday night services, weekend retreats for the confirmation program, and the Thanksgiving ecumenical services. It also saw teacher training classes for the Bethel Bible Series, the "Living Embers" program for convalescent hospital patients, the "Committee of Serving Hands" the "Network of Prayer", and our association with the North Valley Lutheran Schools in 1973. A Vietnamese family was sponsored, St. Stephen's began visits to the Lutheran Baja Mission and in 1978, the schedule of two Sunday services was restored. In 1982, Pastor Severtson retired and the call went to the Rev. Philip Natwick of Oregon to fill the position.
Pastor Natwick began in January of 1983. In November Eileen Raycroft was hired as organist. Later she became Director of Music
In 1986, St. Luke's Presbyterian Church in Granada Hills closed its doors and their preschool was left without a campus. They were welcomed with open arms and continue to be an important part of our ministry. In 1987, St. Stephen's signed an agreement with CalTrans making the rear parking lot available to the Park-N-Ride program. Throughout the 80's, the church sponsored programs such as the Alleluia Series - a musical education series for children based in the scriptures and hymnal and the Telecare Ministry. The fellowship hall facility was shared with a Hispanic congregation and an African-American congregation.
In 1990, as part of the 35th anniversary celebration, St. Stephen's paid off and burned its mortgage.
That same year, St. Stephen's became truly international as the Grace Notes, our handbell choir, hit the continent for a two week concert tour of Germany. They were received by wildly enthusiastic audiences, who had never heard the American style of handbell ringing.
With the retirement of Pastor Natwick in August of 1993 the Rev. Kapp Johnson was named to fill in during the search process. He was then offered the position of full-time pastor and was. installed in a beautiful ceremony on January 16, 1994.
Then, at 4:31 a.m., EARTHQUAKE! The Northridge earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale seriously damaged the beautiful sanctuary building.
Undaunted, the congregation rebuilt the sanctuary, at a cost of over a half million dollars, and reopened in November of 1995 to great fanfare. One guest commented that St. Stephen's was the first congregation he had seen that had rebuilt the church with an eye to the future. Installed was a new sound system, theatrical lighting, video cameras and video wiring, a computer-controlled rear projection screen connected to cable television, a VCR, a laser disk player, a slide projector, a computer and a satellite dish. Now, the words to the hymns could be projected on the screen, beautiful works of art can be enjoyed during the service, and movies can be watched on the big screen. The 90's saw the Martin Luther King Day ecumenical services with combined choirs and congregations, the creation of the Bach Vespers Series, and the creation of the new Praise Service at 10:00 a.m. Sunday morning.
St. Stephen's is known for its exceptional music program. In addition to music for special services, concerts featuring classical or pop music are held several times a year. They feature vocal, instrumental and English Handbell selections. For many years there has been a food pantry serving people in the San Fernando Valley.
The annual "Angel Tree" project provides gifts for children of prisoners at Christmas. Special care is given to the children of St. Stephen's Preschool by church members who "adopt a classroom" for a year.
Following Pastor Johnson's resignation to begin a teaching position at California Lutheran University in February 2006 Rev. Ellen Wekall served as Interim Pastor from April 1, 2006 through July 31, 2007.
The function of an interim minister is to assist the congregation with change. As such Pr. Ellen accomplished the following: office administrative changes, position the Pastors office to the center of campus to ensure high interaction with all activities of the congregation, in conjunction with the deacons/elders visit parishioners who were ill or in long term care, helped form a finance committee which meets monthly, and helped amend several by-laws to improve the functioning of the church council. Pr. Ellen worked very closely with the preschool chair and established weekly meetings with the school director as well as monthly preschool staff meetings. Preaching was focused on the gospel to help with a ministry of doing and hope. Advent and Lenten series were geared to prayer and meditation as a way of helping the congregation become more spiritually aware.
A wonderful addition to the worship service in 2006 was the purchase of the newly published Evangelical Lutheran Worship, an updated hymnal and service book, which combines the former services with new settings and a comprehensive collection of old and new hymns.
The Bethel Bible Series was used again in 2006-2007 as well as several sessions of Alpha, a non-denominational basic Bible course.
St. Stephen's has been used for a variety of synod and conference programs including housing homeless men for two week periods while they were establishing themselves in jobs. In 2007 the Interfaith Council again chose St. Stephen's for the Martin Luther King celebration.
After a period of sincere introspection and multiple communal exercises in self-definition and direction finding, the congregation called the Rev. Kathleen Richter to be the senior pastor beginning August 1, 2007. Her biblical insights and commitment to serving the people of this community are inspirational. All will find a warm welcome here.
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