The rich history that Community Presbyterian Church has here in Cedar City, Utah is one that spans nearly a century and features the church rising to the occasion amid hardship and struggle to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, build God’s Kingdom in the Southern Utah area, and fulfill its mission to “Reach, Grow, and Send” in the community.
Presbyterian mission activity in Southern Utah began in 1880 when W.C. Cort was sent from the Presbyterian Theological Seminary to establish a school in the neighboring community of Parowan, Utah. The school was part of a larger mission effort to spread the Christian message to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as “Mormons” or “LDS Church”) who settled the area. The school was operated by women missionaries and became popular among both Protestant and Mormon students because of the quality of education there. A second school was also opened in Cedar City but was not as popular because of the stronger Mormon opposition.
The mission school in Parowan, UT ca. 1917
This opposition that occurred in the late 19th century by members of local Latter-day Saints congregations proved a challenge for those early Presbyterians members and missionaries. However, that opposition would wane over time due the lingering shadow cast by the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a tragedy that was carried out by local members of the LDS church some 30 years earlier which had caused much more scrutiny to be cast on the LDS church by its members. This scrutiny led to lesser adherence to the customary shunning of outsiders by those who were Mormon, which allowed for the arrival of The Rev. Clayton S. Rice. The Reverend came to Cedar City in 1913 and served both Presbyterian and other Protestant congregations ranging from Millard County to Washington County between 1914 to 1918. He was primarily responsible for raising the necessary funds for the building of a new Presbyterian church in Parowan, which came about as the result of the Presbyterian Schools being so successful. The bell at this new church, which was previously used at the mission school to call children to classes, was placed in the tower of the new church. This bell was originally among many others cast for installation on steam locomotives that operated in the eastern United States, however these bells were donated instead for use by new churches being built in the west.
The church bell that hung in the Parowan mission school, hung in the old church, and now hangs in our current church
Around the late 1910’s, Presbyterian activity began to shift from Parowan to primarily Cedar City due to the influx of new residents and the growth of the mining industry. This called for the building of a separate church in Cedar City. The Rev. Elmer Geiser, who is considered one of the strongest leaders in the congregation's history, arrived in Cedar City in early 1925 and led church services in the basement of the Carnegie Library (which stood next to the present-day City Offices) Prior to this, church services were conducted in members' homes. Rev. Geiser, along with congregants Charles Lundgren and Oscar Larson, encouraged the congregation to raise funds for the construction of a new church building. The building was funded quickly and generously, and construction was started in August of 1925. The total cost of the endeavor was $12,000 (or $175,465 in 2022) and the church, still standing and located in downtown Cedar City at the corner of 200 North and 100 East, was dedicated to the worship of God on May 26, 1926, and featured the same bell that hung in the school at Parowan and a new, ornate, Gothic arched stained-glass window.
The old Carnegie Library, where services were first held.
The church on the day of its dedication, May 1926
While the congregation had successfully overcome the opposition of local members of the Mormon church and the challenge of building their own church, they would still face other hardships throughout most of the 20th Century. Due to financial hardship and a rapidly fluctuating number of active members, the church struggled to stay solvent and maintain its building. In addition to this, the church faced difficulties in keeping a pastor for an extended period of time, often having the pulpit filled by a myriad of interim staff over the years. An unfortunate sign of this occurred when the church's ornate stained-glass window was destroyed by a windstorm in the mid-20th century, and the church did not have the funds to replace it. Because of these hardships the church had, it primarily served as a mission church for the Presbytery of Utah. In spite of these dire circumstances the congregation persevered, holding annual rummage sales, community events, public church services, and even raising the money to replace the original stained-glass window with a simpler, yet still elegant, window. The church also enjoyed periods of stability during this time too under a few leaders who served for extended periods such as Rev. William Forsyth (1930-1940), Rev. Raymond L. Wilson (1955-1963), and Rev. Grayson H. Gowan (1963-1973), but still, due to hardships (financial and otherwise) the church often did not have a permanent pastor and was served by an ever-changing rotation of pastors.
It should also be noted that the church experienced several name changes during this time as well. The name of the church would change several times over the years since 1925. Prior to 1925, the church was known as “Cedar” and after the dedication of the church in 1926 would be known as “Community”. In 1929, the church would be known as “Union” and then “First”, with the name finally returning to Community in the 1940’s, which it has remained since.
The old church in winter, ca. 1950's
The old church featuring the simplified stained-glass window. ca. 1980's
The church finally came into good fortune and stability in the 1980’s, when the church became financially self-sufficient thanks to the work of the Rev. John McCandless, who was called to be the Pastor of the church in 1983. During his tenure, the church would even help to establish the local food pantry and homeless shelter, the Iron County Care and Share, and membership and Sunday School programs grew to the point that when he retired in 1992, the idea that a larger worship facility would be needed became much more prevalent. Under the direction of the Rev. C. Jeffery Garrison, who became pastor of the church in November of 1993, the church’s programs, community outreach, and attendance now fully justified the building of a new church, which we now occupy.
Construction of our current 15,000 square foot worship facility began in August of 1996 and was completed in December of 1997. On moving day, December 7, 1997, the opening portion of the worship service was held in the old church sanctuary and the remainder of the service was held in the new church sanctuary located on the north side of Cedar City. This new building featured a stainless-Steel Celtic Cross that adorns the roof of the sanctuary, as well as the old bell which had been first brought over from the church in Parowan and had now been brought from the tower of the old church where it hung for over 70 years. At this current building, the congregation enjoys a beautiful and fully owned worship, educational, and fellowship facility. The old church, due to its status as the oldest Presbyterian house of worship in Southern Utah, was sold on condition that the building remain intact, and as of 2022 houses an engineering firm.
The church under construction ca. 1996
Unlike much of the 20th century, which had times of struggle and hardship for the church, the church today has experienced unparalleled growth and progress. In 2014, the church welcomed its first female leader, Pastor Nancy Pearson. 2017 saw the establishment of Treasures Thrift Store in Cedar City, which allowed for the church to utilize its experience in rummage sales to raise funds for local organizations and further the church’s mission work. The church also hosts a childcare facility and the annual Summer Lunch Program, which feeds hundreds of food-insecure students in Iron County when school is not in session.
That is not to say that the church does not continue to experience strife and setbacks. The church has experienced internal schisms that resulted in the loss of members, most recently in 2013 regarding a case of allowing a separate church to borrow the sanctuary for worship while their building was under construction. While that was resolved and the church has since moved on, nothing could have warned us of what would occur in 2020. The COVID-19 Pandemic has caused the most uncertainty, loss, and disruption for the church in recent memory, due to in-person worship being discontinued and several members of the church losing their lives because of the virus.
Pastor Nancy, the first female pastor to serve our church.
For several months in 2020 and up to 2021, the church building was closed, and all fellowship activities were suspended. However, the congregation came to learn that the church is simply not just the building, but rather the people who make it up. Compared to several other churches across the country, many of which continue to struggle with some closing permanently due to the pressure and strain of the pandemic, this church was able to adapt and once again rise to the occasion, hosting safe and responsible fellowship activities outdoors or in the parking lot, and creating a production system that allows for live broadcast of church services and implementing safety measures to ensure the safety and health of everyone in the congregation. Thanks to these measures, fellowship activities have slowly begun to resume, and the church is now better prepared for instances where in-person worship might not be available.
The church, both now and in 1925, has faced challenges in its endeavor to build God’s kingdom. While the challenges we as a church face may change, the goal of this church has not, which is to spread the good news that Christ has risen, and that He has inspired us to reach out to others in service and compassion, grow in humility and faith, and send ourselves out to spread His gospel and serve others and God as He did.