Church members donated a part of their grounds to facilitate Jefferson Park, an affordable housing site for seniors and low-income residents.
Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series.
Having had the monumental experience of leading his congregation in building its new home, probably explains why Rev. Hugh Peniston chose to spend his entire remaining ministry in that church. He is the longest serving minister in First Presbyterian’s history. Peniston had been ordained in 1944 and had served two years as co-pastor at a Presbyterian Church in Vallejo, Calif., before taking up the yoke of his ministry here in Cottage Grove, starting Jan. 1, 1947, one that he would carry for 32 years.
“The building of the church was part of my own search for the meaning of faith. I was searching then, as I still am, and was learning not just from Mr. Belluschi but from the committee and the congregation. We worked together. Ordinary people, who had no real knowledge of architecture, nevertheless had profound insights and deep feelings for beauty and integrity, which made a difference in the final result. I realize this much better now than I did then. My own life was changed by what we experienced,” reflected Peniston, 50 years after the building of the church.
The old church building had many limiations, including space. Besides the main worship area, there were two usable rooms. Heating required hours of work and involved a temperamental old heater. Access to the church meant climbing a long flight of stairs, a remnant of the old flood days. This was tough on elderly members and impossible for alter-abled persons.
Moving into the new church was transformational. Suddenly space was bountiful. New groups in the church burst into existence, in part, simply from having a place where they could meet. A Couples Club, Presbyterian Women’s Association, Vacation Church Schools – along with the usual Sunday Schools, church socials, and dinners – all blossomed in the new spacious facility. Church membership surged and within a couple of years there were over 300 members.
It wasn’t just members who benefited from the new digs. The congregation willingly opened their facilities to community groups who were trying to improve life in Cottage Grove. Having a place to meet assisted these fledgling groups to do much good in the community. Head Start used the Church’s Fellowship Hall for three years, which effectively put it off-limits to church members, but it was a sacrifice for the greater good the congregation was happy to make. The Montessori School provided the first early education (3-year-olds and up) in Cottage Grove while sharing the nursery rooms with the church for ten years. The church upgraded its kitchen to facilitate cooking for Meals on Wheels, Riverview Apartments, and other community feeding programs. The new building became a blessing for many besides the church members. Pre-Covid, the Catholic Church and the FPC offered the use of their buildings for Beds for Freezing Nights.
When a homeless, mentally ill woman was found sleeping in the church, members decided to try to help her. While they were looking for an agency that could help her and finding none, it dawned on church members that there was a real need for mental health services in Cottage Grove. A committee was formed at the church and what they began ended up resulting in the founding of South Lane Mental Health. One of the church members donated the house on Main Street that became the first residential care program for SLMH.
Other social service organizations in Cottage Grove have had key members and support from the Presbyterians here. Family Relief Nursery started out using space in FPC; later, use of land and funds from the church helped the Relief Nursery in getting its own facility. Community Sharing was another social assistance First Presbyterian has had its fingers in and food security is an issue that the congregation still supports.
Affordable housing has been one of the areas where the First Presbyterian Church has had a large influence locally. Affordable or low-income housing became an issue in Cottage Grove in the 1970s as the timber industry began a downward turn, leading to job losses and housing issues. One of the leading advocates, who became a driving force in addressing the problem, was Rev. Hugh Peniston. Barbara Gant, who joined the church when she and her husband Jim moved here in 1957, remembers how when the issue of low-income housing came before the City Council, there was an uproar in the community. Dr. Jim Gant, who was a councilor, was surprised at this reaction because there was clearly a need for affordable housing. By making the focus on low-cost housing for seniors helped cool the resistance and allowed the housing efforts to go forward.
Rev. Peniston first showed his leadership in the housing area by working with the Presbyterian Action for Housing Development (PAHD), a nonprofit he organized. This group was formed of four Presbyterian churches in Eugene/Springfield who joined with the Cottage Grove church. They developed a five-acre church site in Springfield, and eventually built 80 units of family housing consisting of one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments. This complex was named Rainbow Village. PAHD worked with HUD in using experimental construction techniques and getting funds through their participation in the demonstration project. Groundbreaking was on March 4, 1973 and Rainbow Village was fully occupied by Dec. 10 of that year.
In Cottage Grove, the minister and his congregation worked to provide affordable housing opportunities for seniors and low-income residents by developing Jefferson Park. The church donated a part of its grounds for the 53-unit complex. It was augmented by Witherspoon Court, a 20-unit senior complex nearby. Church members have served on all three boards.
Peniston was also a huge advocate for education. This extract from his obituary appearing in a July, 2012 edition of the Eugene Register-Guard hints at some of the actions of this tireless worker: “Addressing controversial issues concerning dress code and sexual education in public schools, he served at the local and state levels in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Later he chaired the committee that planned the new junior high school (Lincoln Middle School) in Cottage Grove. From 1973 until ’84, he was one of the directors of the Lane Education Service District. Twice he served as a trustee for Lewis and Clark College in Portland, and for his work there, he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Literature in 1969. He also taught numerous classes on the Bible, both in churches and in schools, and he wrote prolifically for inter-denominational publications.”
Even after his retirement in 1979, Peniston continued his work for causes he believed in, but enjoyed doing it as a member of the congregation rather than its leader.
More recently members of First Presbyterian’s Earth and Social Justice committee (ESJ) took up the question of affordable housing again. Discussions among committee members led to a significant grant from the Presbyterian Women’s Association and the vision of a tiny homes village. This group eventually partnered with Square One Villages and formed the Cottage Village Coalition. At the Madison Ave. site, the first walls were raised in April, 2019, with 9 units being completed and residents moving in after a dedication in September of 2020. ESJ Chair Bruce Kelsh was one of the other committee members that stuck with the vision through thick and thin during the 4-year project. He said, “Creating affordable housing is a strong theme in FPC mission work.” There are currently 4 additional units under construction that will complete this self-governing housing coop.
Barbara Gant, one of the most active and longest serving members of the congregation, reflected on what she has observed in her 60-plus years of membership in First Presbyterian Church: “Putting faith into action has always been one of the priorities of this congregation. FPC has joined with other faith communities, civic groups and any interested people to provide opportunities for others where need exists. It is a legacy that reaches back many years and guides us into our future.”
Further expressions of the church’s quest for social justice came by the congregation choosing to join the Sanctuary movement. FPC joined five other churches in Cottage Grove to bring a displaced hill tribe Laotian family to Oregon, and supported the farm worker movement. More recently the congregation joined the Presbyterian commitment to the environment by becoming an Earth Care Congregation and in 2019 were certified as a Hunger Action Congregation working to alleviate hunger in this country. Not all of these efforts have found acceptance among all church members, such as the decision to be affiliated with the More Light Church organization in welcoming LGBTQ people to the ministry of the Church. Well, even Jesus, it seems, ruffled the righteous feathers of his day with many of his teachings and actions.
The current pastor, Rev. Karen Hill, who was invited to come to Cottage Grove five years ago, said: “What attracted me to this church was its commitment to progressive theology which led them into engagement with the community. The architecture of the building reflects that commitment. While sitting in the sanctuary, one wall is made of windows. This is to remind worshipers that the outside world awaits, that as “the worship ends, the service begins. Presbyterians take this call to service seriously. We believe that, in order to be the body of Christ in the world, we point to God’s transforming grace in the life and ministry of Christ Jesus, through our worship and our service. They go together – the Word and the work. This has long been a commitment for the Presbyterians in Cottage Grove.”
“First Presbyterian Church is a progressive community of faith in the reformed tradition. Open to people of little faith and open to those of great faith, we want everyone to find welcome within our church. During the pandemic, we are meeting virtually. We record our worship and post it on Vimeo. That doesn’t mean the church is closed, however. We have renewed and re-doubled our commitment to serving the community and those in need. We continue to be very active in all areas of mission and ministry. If you would like to know more, contact the church at [email protected], or call 541-942-4479. You can also find them on Facebook.”
In the 166 years that have followed since that group of dedicated pioneers first gathered under an oak tree, it is reassuring to know that their vision to bring a Presbyterian church into existence has not failed. Rather, it has continued to grow and spread its branches, like that oak tree, dropping acorns that have sprouted and grown as well.
As the congregation heads toward its second century of service in the community of Cottage Grove, let us be thankful for all those along the way who believed in taking that “Leap of Faith” to dare and do great things for their fellow humans.
Part Three: Church now focusing on homeless, ill
Email: [email protected]