In late 1886, several of Coronado’s earliest families were living in tents while home construction began on their newly acquired lots. It was fitting then that Coronado’s first church, now known as St. Paul’s United Methodist Church of the Voyager, also met in a tent.
The tent building, which was also Coronado’s first schoolhouse, sat on the corner of Seventh Street and E Avenue on three lots donated by Coronado Beach Company owners Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story. The first service was held on Jan. 30, 1887, led by the Rev. Joseph J. Foote, who had been a chaplain in the Civil War.
The Bible that Foote carried during his years as chaplain was placed in the cornerstone of the church that was built in June of that year. The same Bible is now on display in the foyer of of today’s church.
The church’s early years were made difficult by the turnover of several ministers and low attendance, and the building was boarded up in 1902. It was reopened in 1910, but years of disuse had taken their toll; the building was in dire need of a renovation.
By 1913 the Coronado school had acquired the entire block bounded by Sixth and Seventh streets and D and E avenues, except for the three lots owned by the church. A property exchange was arranged, and the church was rebuilt where it now stands on the corner of Seventh Avenue and D Street.
Still, the church faced further difficulty when the Great Depression struck and struggled until Coronado’s population soared with the outbreak of World War II. The church, which became debt free in 1942, was overwhelmed by a burgeoning congregation and needed to add temporary Sunday school space in the nearby school and fire station. In 1946, the church name was was formally changed from its original name of Methodist Episcopal Church to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church of the Voyager, thought to be a fitting tribute to the many Navy families who had contributed to the church. “The congregation at the time found that name to make a lot of sense — not just because of the Navy families but also because the apostle Paul made three voyages in boats,” said Marcie Warmer, church administrator.
The congregation continued to expand and soon outgrew the space. In 1962, the building was leveled and, on the 75th anniversary of the founding of the church, a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of what stands today was held. In keeping with its name, Warmer explained, the building was constructed in the shape of an upside-down ship. An antique model of a Spanish galleon was donated by three naval officers; it now hangs in the sanctuary, facing the cross at the altar to represent the spiritual presence of those who are at sea on ships. The pulpit is shaped like a bow sprit, and the lectern is reminiscent of a seagull in flight.
In 1996, the church went through challenging times when part of the congregation exited, following the church’s former pastor, Dr. Tom Warmer, as he founded the Coronado Community Church.
“It was a big change and took some getting used to at first,” said Warmer, who was married to Tom Warmer’s brother, the late Craig Warmer. “But good things came out of it. The community got a new church where people can worship, and St. Paul’s acquired Neil [Keller] as our reverend. And the people who stayed after the split have been a very committed congregation.”
Keller will retire in 2017 after serving St. Paul’s, which now has 340 members and is Coronado’s second largest congregation, for 20 years.
In 2009, the church grounds underwent another renovation, gaining classroom space, a choir room, a new nursery, and updated facilities. Despite the many changes and architectural transformations the church has undergone in nearly 130 years, its spiritual cornerstones have remained the same. “Methodism tends to be less conservative and more middle-ground,” Warmer explained. “The mission of the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, in particular, is open hearts, open minds and open doors to every generation in all stages of their spiritual life.” Keller said, “United Methodists have a strong sense of personal spirituality coupled with a key social conscious.
Providing ministry both locally and abroad is a vital component of the church’s mission. Adjunct Rev. Lisa Johnson runs a weekly young women’s Bible study group with about 60 members. The church provides free child-care and “is about creating a sacred, safe place for moms to be still and listen for God through the Bible and each other,” Johnson said. “It’s a place where you can be real and not be judged and receive grace and love. We’re all at different places on our journey of faith, but were coming together as a community to encourage each other.” The group is so popular, in fact, that there’s currently a waiting list. Another group, called “prayers and squares,” meets frequently to quilt blankets for community members that could use some comfort. A non-denominational Bible study group also meets weekly, along with middle and high school youth groups. The church even provides free pizza lunch to all high school students on Mondays. Additional group activities include yoga, meditation and Zumba classes, faith-based lectures and crafting workshops for various missions projects.
Under Johnson’s leadership, the church supports Children of the Nations, an organization serving children in the Dominican Republic; church members regularly package meals and send school supplies. The church’s Global Missions Group supports various missions around the world, including medical and dental missions, the Casa de Hogar Zion orphanage in Mexico, an AIDS mission in West Los Angeles and a home in San Diego that supports women transitioning from incarceration. Each Christmas, church members can take angels off the angel tree in the church foyer, which names the desired gift of a poor child in South Bay for the member to provide.
Also fundamental to the church is its music. The chancel choir has 40 members. Sunday worship services include musical accompaniments by organ (an Allen three-keyboard electronic that was dedicated in 1996 in memory of noted Coronado architect Chris Mortenson) and a concert grand piano at Sunday worship services. Aiming to appeal to a younger generation of worshippers, St. Paul’s has turned the 9 a.m. service into a contemporary praise service that includes guitars, drums, singers and screens with song lyrics so the congregation can sing along. A children’s praise choir often provides worship music. “The sanctuary is acoustically almost perfect because of the high cathedral ceilings. It’s really wonderful,” Warmer said.
“I love this church,” she said. “When I came here almost 30 years ago it was supposed to be a temporary job. I’ve seen a lot of change — but also a lot of growth. There’s something for everybody and, at the end of the day, our congregation is extremely generous and deeply spiritual.”
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church
Sunday services at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
700 D Ave.