CASA GRANDE — Isaiah 40. "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever."
That imperishable word of God is what this church was founded upon. It took people who had faith in that word to bring about a congregation in a hot dusty railroad stop of the 1890s. It took a lot of faith for Henry Thompson to come from the Phoenix area and begin preaching at stops along the Southern Pacific Railroad. Moving from place to place on a hand car, Thompson would preach in Arizola, then Casa Grande and then Maricopa. At one point, it was thought that Arizola (at what is now Arizola Road and Jimmie Kerr Boulevard) would be the dominant community — the grass withers and the flowers fall. Henry started his preaching in 1894, two years before the church was established. It took a lot of faith in that word to know that it would get ahold of people’s hearts and not let them go. To be held captive by the Word of God, is the way Martin Luther put it.
It took a lot of faith for Isaac Whittemore to come from the Midwest in 1888 and give a sermon in a room in the first county courthouse in Florence that was so well received that the local folks begged him to stay and start a church. What they failed to mention were the preachers who had come before and failed to start a church in the rough and tumble county seat. After much prayer, however, Isaac moved his wife and daughter to the Wild West and established First Presbyterian Church of Florence. On May 3, 1896, he was there with Henry A. Thompson to start Endeavor Church, which would serve both Arizola and Casa Grande. The Arizona Republican newspaper stated at the time, “We believe a large future opens before this church, which starts out well and comes at a time when interest of the community is aroused on matters of religion and the advantages of having a church organization in their midst.” The first church services were conducted in the adobe building that served as the first schoolhouse. By 1897, Isaac Whittemore was ready to add preaching in Casa Grande to his duties of pastoring Florence and caretaking at the Casa Grande Ruins. In 1899, there was enough of a congregation to erect a church building. The materials were gleaned from an icehouse that was disassembled in Florence and transported to Casa Grande.
After Whittemore retired to California, there was a succession of pastors who would serve the church as a Stated Supply pastor for one or two years. The main function of a Stated Supply pastor is to preach on Sunday morning. Most of these pastors also served in Florence. So only once or twice a month would the Casa Grande church listen to the pastor preach on Sunday morning. These pastors were either young, coming out of seminary to their first call, or were missionary minded, following Charles Cook’s inspiration to serve the Native population. Some were seeking one last call before retirement. During this period, the church needed some stability.
Blinky Wilson, the late owner of the car dealership in the iconic ship-shaped building on Gila Bend Highway, remembered a story about his brother Russell. Russell Wilson was to clean the church and bring wood for the pot-bellied stove. Most of the time the ministers would help, but on one occasion a rather prim and proper man of the cloth felt that manual labor was a bit beneath him. Russell, a lad of 13, fuming and fussing about the minister’s imperious air, decided to take him down a peg or two. Before the minister arrived for the Sunday service, Russell disconnected the stove pipe and stuffed it with paper. He then reconnected it and Blinky and Russell took their seats in the back of the church and awaited the preacher’s arrival with hands piously folded in their laps. When he came, he was dressed in a suit the color of vanilla ice cream. He smiled benevolently at the congregation and proceeded to light the stove. Black smoke poured out and soot covered him from head to toe. Services were delayed for an hour while the preacher bathed and changed his clothes. No one suspected the guileless boys. As Blinky told the story, it was all Russell’s idea.
It took a lot of faith for Sarah McMurray to provide some of that stability. She was described as quite short and was long remembered for the bonnet adorned with violets that she frequently wore. She became a symbol of total commitment in the mind of the congregation. She owned a construction company that her grandson, Gordon, managed for her. She would alternate leading prayer services and teaching duties with some of the elders. In an age when women were not ordained as elders, it was not uncommon for her to officiate at a funeral when no pastor was available. On March 26, 1919, she died at age 84. The local newspaper announced her passing with: “Cold type cannot express the sorrow with which the announcement of the death of Mrs. McMurray was received. It was a personal loss, because she was the friend, the guardian guide, of every man or woman with which she came in contact.”
In 1917, Casa Grande would call its first permanent pastor, the Rev. Norman Riley Curtis. Pastor Curtis had worked with the Mescalero Apache in New Mexico. He had developed a strong relationship with Naches, son of Cochise, and chief of the tribe that Geronimo belonged to. He came to Casa Grande and envisioned a bright future for the fledgling church. Together with Pastor Curtis, the Session of Elders set forth a five-year plan in 1919. The first step was to obtain property at the northern end of Sacaton Street, which was also the northern end of town at the time. Next, they would construct a manse for the pastor and his family to live in. An impressive new sanctuary would be built of native stone. However, this five-year plan did not follow God’s timetable. The congregation would need to learn patience and perhaps another lesson or two.
The property was acquired, and the manse was built in June of 1921. In 1925, the congregation had 82 members and pledged $6,707 for the building fund. A loan was received from the Home Mission Board and the following year a contract was let for the sanctuary and ground was broken March 13, 1926. The church sanctuary was designed by architect Robert Orr of Los Angeles and constructed by Michael Sullivan, a Catholic stonemason who built several residences and commercial buildings in Casa Grande. FPC also made plans for a church building in Toltec and the addition of a community pastor. The Toltec Church was established in May of 1919 in the new Toltec Hotel, but by 1922 the boom in the area had dwindled enough to close the church.
On Sept. 6, 1925, Curry H. Love was installed as the new pastor of First Presbyterian Church and ushered in a new era of stability for the church. On Christmas Day 1925, Curry Love was married to Miss Mary Hood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in a ceremony in Tucson performed by the Rev. Dr. B. Wrenn Webb. Immediately after the ceremony they returned to reside in the Presbyterian manse. For the next 14 years Rev. Love served the church through good times and bad. He held the first worship service in the new “rock” church when it was completed in 1928. Through the years of the Great Depression his leadership held the church together financially and kept membership steady. He was well respected in the community and helped organize a community chest to assist those who were out of work and in need of food and clothing. He published Sunday school lessons in the Casa Grande Dispatch and held countless funeral services over the years. Because of a rule of the Presbyterian Church at the time, he had to resign as pastor of the church when he turned 70. So, on April 11, 1939, the pastoral relationship between Curry Love and First Presbyterian Church was dissolved.
At a congregational meeting held Dec. 27, 1945, the Rev. Elias Jones of Payson, Utah, was called by a unanimous vote of the congregation, with an annual salary of $2,100, free use of the manse, one month vacation and pay to the Board of Pensions in the amount of 8% of salary. Rev. Jones was a native of North Wales and came to the United States at the age of 23. He was educated at Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio, and McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Prior to his pastorate in Utah, he was pastor of Euclid Heights Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. In 1947 Rev. Jones was invited to be the guest preacher at a Welsh service at First Presbyterian Church in Phoenix, which featured traditional Welsh hymns. In 1948 Rev. Jones officiated at the funeral of a Casa Grande pioneer, Daniel T. Peart, a teacher and former mayor of the city. Under Pastor Jones the church experienced a time of growth and stability. Rev. Jones represented the Presbytery as a delegate to the 164th General Assembly held May 22-28, 1952, in New York City. Due to the mandatory retirement age of 70, the church lost its second longtime, well-loved pastor. Rev. Elias Jones retired at the end of 1956. During that 11-year period the church membership rose from 141 to 440. The church built a new manse and fellowship hall, remodeled the sanctuary and became debt free.
Between 1946 and 1956, more seating was added to the sanctuary, and more classrooms in the basement. A new manse was built and the old one used for Sunday school and nursery purposes. A large Sunday school building was added in 1952. The sanctuary also acquired an electric organ with chimes and a stained-glass window.
On Jan. 8, 2017, the Rev. Paul Elgin was installed as the senior pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church of Casa Grande. He is still the pastor today.
Bill Heinle is associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Casa Grande.