Summit Avenue Presbyterian Church was originally called the “Church on the Hill.” Understanding our church history requires an understanding of the origin of the town built in what is now called Bremerton. Bremerton was in fact first called “Charleston.” In the late 1880s, the US Navy sent two teams to examine sites around Puget Sound for a new Naval Facility. The north side of Sinclair Inlet, a branch of Port Orchard Bay, was selected. Real estate speculation resulted in adjoining plats of “Charleston” and “Port Orchard” in early 1891 – outside the west end of the newly selected Navy site. (note: the town we now know as Port Orchard, located on the south side of Sinclair Inlet, was at that time known as Sidney). The contractor for the Navy dry-dock chose Charleston for his headquarters and a “company town” was established.
Key figures in creation of both the Naval Facility and the church were Lt. Ambrose Barkley Wyckoff (USN) and his cousin and business consultant, George Madison Terrell. Both had become Christians at the same revival meeting in southern Illinois as teenagers. Terrell became a lifelong Baptist. Wyckoff, due to his contacts with a Presbyterian minister while attending the Naval Academy (and subsequent marriage to said minister) became a Presbyterian.
These men and a few others realized that this town needed a religious influence. It started with Bible classes for children. On Sunday, September 18, 1892, a public meeting was held to consider forming a church and constructing a building. By popular vote of those 25 attending, it was decided to proceed and that it should be Presbyterian. It was also decided that other Christians could use the building when the Presbyterians were not using it. The church building was thus intended for use by the entire community.
The next step was to contact the Presbytery of Puget Sound. Fortunately, the right man, Rev. Thomas MacGuire, was available to guide the development of the Charleston Church. Rev. MacGuire, a Canadian, had come to western Washington in the 1880s. He had previously organized and helped construct two Tacoma churches and one in Everett. The first thing he helped them do was to obtain property and raise funds.
Sylvester and Mary Barbee had platted “Port Orchard” in February, 1891. They donated three lots, valued at that time at $500.00. The Hart Lumber Company of Seattle donated 5000 board feet of rough lumber. George Terrell donated $250. Lt. Wyckoff, J.P. Thompson, and O.A. Bulette contributed $50 each. Others contributed smaller amounts or pledged labor. A $225 loan was obtained from the Board of Church Erection.
Progress was slow. Church school continued and, undoubtedly, Bible study, prayer gatherings and social activities were held. However, it was not until January 15, 1983, that the first officially recognized church service was held at the new Charleston School (near the location of what would be known as the “Hillcrest” school. The schoolhouse would continue to be used until the church building was erected. The first service in the new, one room, church building was held on November 30, 1893.
Rev. MacGuire also guided the church to establish a corporate structure. On June 2, 1894, the First Presbyterian Church of Port Orchard filed articles of incorporation at the Kitsap County Courthouse. So, Summit was originally called “First Presbyterian of Port Orchard.”
Through a series of confusions and misunderstanding by various departments about the geography of this region, the Port Orchard post office ended up in Sidney and the Charleston post office was in Port Orchard (now West Bremerton). It stayed this way for ten years until Will Thompson, editor of the Sidney Independent, went into State legislature (1902-03) and succeeded in restoring the Charleston post office to Charleston and the Port Orchard post office to Port Orchard. In 1903 the legislature changed the name of Sidney to what we know it as today...Port Orchard.
Meanwhile, the city of Bremerton, to the north and east of Charleston, was officially incorporated on October 15, 1901. Bremerton absorbed Charleston in 1927, thus expanding its population to just over 10,000.
Services at the church were mostly biweekly until about 1901. Facilities were a single large drafty room with a wood stove for heat and lanterns for light; attendees endured. No plumbing, no pews, no water, and rough, hilly (often muddy) streets were a challenge to negotiate by foot or by wagon. The community, so enthusiastic in 1892, weathered the economic depression of 1893. However, with the completion of the dry-dock, the workers left and businesses closed. According to an early pioneer, about all that remained was the post office, the school, Chick’s store, and the church. This situation continued from about 1895 to 1987, when work in the Navy Yard – and the town’s population – began to increase. The pattern had been established that the vitality of the church and the workload of the Naval Shipyard were intimately related.
By 1901 services were being held weekly. New businesses in town were opening. Real estate sales were brisk. The church, in October, graded the property, lowered the building to near street level, installed pews, and painted. Through October, Rev. MacGuire was still the “missionary minister.” In November, a ministerial student, A.J. Whipkey, assumed regular ministerial functions, but Rev. MacGuire continued to be a frequent pulpit visitor. A record church school attendance of 92 was achieved in November. Services were at 10 am and 8 pm, with church school at 7 pm, and Wednesday prayer meetings at 7 pm.
In January 1902, the pulpit platform was enlarged to make room for a choir. Attendance was increasing. On March 2, 1902, the church became officially organized when it received its charter. Rev. MacGuire conducted the meeting with ministerial student “Rev.” Whipkey assisting. The 18 charter members were Mrs. W. Seymore, Amy Seymore, Mrs. A.R. James, Blanche Jaynes, Mr. and Mrs. Will T. Squire, Mrs. Anna Peterson, Edith Peterson, Josephine Blodgett, Mrs. Charles Rodgers, Mable Rodgers, Peter Snyder, Mrs. Mary C Snyder, Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Jones, James Rodgers, Mrs. C.A. Parks, and Mrs. S.G. Wolfkill. Will Squire was elected the first (and only) elder. To give the church a push, Rev. MacGuire held services every night for a week.
The activities of the church were led at this time by a Christian Endeavor Group, organized in October 1902. By January 1903, “Rev” Whipkey was off studying for the ministry. Rev. W. Chalmers Gunn began preaching in February. In March, new song books were obtained.
Recognizing the fact that the church was now Presbyterian, those attending who were Baptist formed the Baptist Social Union in April, and began holding meetings at members’ houses. They had separate church school classes but shared social activities with the Presbyterian children. (George Terrell was the driving force among the Baptists and several years later provided the land for the Charleston Baptist Church).
In March 1903, there was another round of grading and again the building was lowered. The building was painted inside and out, and carpet installed. Work began on installing electric lights. In September, 1903, Rev. Gunn finished installation of the electric lighting. (Power and telephone lines had been extended to Charleston from Bremerton in the Fall of 1902). In October, Rev. Gunn bought a small organ for use in worship (organs were both much cheaper and considerably lighter than pianos).
As early as December, 1903, the church was supporting missionary work when it was recorded that a box was sent to the Alaska Indian Mission. April 1904 saw the Presbyterian Church as the site of the first annual meeting of the Baptist Social Union. Baptist influence was so strong up to this time that infant baptism had been “neglected” to avoid offending them. On June 18, 1904, Rev. MacGuire, age 73, died in Monod Hospital and was buried at Lakeview Cemetery.
Rev. John Henry Hope became Pastor in December, 1904. (By this time the name had been changed to the Charleston Presbyterian Church because the town’s name had been changed from Port Orchard to Charleston by act of the state on February 26, 1903). In January 1905, Rev. Hope began organizing the Presbyterian Church in Bremerton. Their first service was held in the Bremerton Lutheran Church (now Our Savior’s) at 4th and Washington. On May 1, 1905, Rev. Hope died of internal bleeding. Mrs. Hope presented the church with an organ that was used during the funeral service.
The Charleston and Bremerton Presbyterian churches shared the next minister, Rev. W.A. Mackey, who was called in June 1905. By September, the Bremerton church was formally organized with 27 charter members.
On September 17, 1905, the Baptists were formally organized as the First Baptist Church of Charleston. They met in several halls around town for the next six or seven years until they obtained their own building. During this time, the Baptists continued to have a close working and social relationship with the Presbyterians.
Rev. Mackey continued until April 1906, when the pulpit was filled by Rev. Orien Sherman Barnum. Rev. Barnum led the church for six years. He participated in the opening of Union High School that served both Bremerton and Charleston. During this time, communion services were held quarterly. In September, 1908, the front of the church was “blessed” with a concrete sidewalk.
This period also saw the church working for temperance and control of saloons. This was an unpopular stance with the city fathers because saloon permit fees were the major source of town revenue. By the time Rev. Barnum left in 1912, church school membership was 104 with average church attendance of 39.
Between 1912 and 1921 the church was served by five pastors:
Rev. Carl R. Longebrake 1912-1915
Rev. John C. Young 1915-1916
Rev. A.M. Burkholder 1917-1919
Rev. Standford B. Brinkley 1919-1920
Rev. S. Thomas Simpson 1920-1921
At times the church could not support a full time pastor, so that at least one (Burkholder) worked in the naval shipyard. Although there had been a dramatic increase in Charleston’s population due to WWI, there was no equivalent growth in the church. (During this time, two other Charleston churches started and failed, while the Baptist church grew and built new facilities.)
With the arrival of the dynamic evangelist, Rev. George H. Redden in June 1921, our church began a period of rapid growth. The old building soon was too small. By August 1921, the church was looking for larger facilities and even tried to lease the Community Hall (now American Legion Post 149). This being denied, the church leased the upper floor of the Charleston City Hall. Church growth is most clearly seen in the growth of the church school – from 30 to 140 in just three months!
Rev. Redden took other measures to ensure growth. The old building was converted into a gymnasium. A playground was established near city hall. Growth objectives were set and celebrated with festivities when achieved. After the getting the church aimed at growth and expansion, Rev. Redden left in November 1922.
In January 1923, plans for a new church building were sufficiently developed that a Presbytery committee visited to review the site. One member was Rev. George W. Davis, then Chaplain at the McNeill Island Federal Prison, became our next pastor. On March 14, Rev. Davis led a “Moving Bee” that tore down the old building. On April 20, his wife, Florence May, died following an operation in Seattle. Although having been at the church for only a few months, her death resulted in the purchase of a large memorial stained glass window that was added to the new building design. The remainder of 1923 was used for fundraising and in January 1924 the foundation of the new building was laid. On November 27, 1924, Rev. Mark A. Matthews keynoted the dedication and praised Rev. Davis for all his efforts. Rev. Davis left early in 1925 for a well-earned retirement.
Our next pastor was Rev. John L. Hess. Actually, we got “two for the price of one” because Mrs. Hess was an ordained minister in the Congregational Church, and substituted for Mr. Hess from time to time. Suitable housing for the Hess family was difficult to obtain. They even considered living in the church. In June 1926, Session decided to purchase the house of Mr. and Mrs. Ole Utheim as a manse. The house was directly behind the church on Farragut and had been built by James Rogers in 1903.
In 1928, Rev. Wallace Sutton Marple replaced Rev. Hess. Rev. Marple was a history buff and had lengthy discussions with George Terrell, one of the church founders, who lived just one half block north of the church. Marple was also active in civic functions and it was while he was speaking to the YMCA that he suffered a heart attack and died on October 26, 1931. (Mrs. Marple was a respected church school teacher and, according to one of her students, was most remembered for wearing brightly colored pantaloons.)
The town of Charleston consolidated with Bremerton as 1927 came to an end. This necessitated some changes in street names and a new house numbering system. Our church had fronted on Tracy Avenue. Now it fronted on Summit Avenue. The church was renamed Summit Avenue Presbyterian Church. This was officially recognized by the Seattle Presbytery on April 17, 1929.
In March 1932, Rev. Max Stow became our pastor. As a bachelor, he took a great interest in youth programs, particularly outdoor activities like mountain hiking. One of these groups was called the “Pioneer Club.” However, being rather severe in both doctrine and manners, according to one source, he did not relate well to the adults in the church.
Rev. John Chester Tourtellot arrived in mid-1934 and remained with us through the Great Depression and up to the start of WWII. During this time, a large “Welcome” sign was above the entrance and people referred to us as “The Welcome Church.” Tourtellot was a challenging preacher. Evening services sometimes were question and answer. In 1939 he preached the Easter Sunrise service at the Rock Quarry near Gorst. In 1937, he addressed the PTA on one of his favorite themes, “Motion Pictures and Their Effects on Children” (think of what he’d have to say today!). Even this level of leadership was unable to halt the erosion of church membership that seems to have been a result of Depression conditions. In November 1940, conditions were so poor that the congregation voted overwhelmingly to join with the Presbyterian Church in downtown Bremerton. Negotiations continued through 1941, and on April 24, 1942, a joint meeting agreed to join churches and Presbytery agreed. However, the rapid changed in the Bremerton area resulting from the war preparations caused the churches to remain separate.
Rev. Turtoullot left in August 1940 and was replaced by Rev. Oswald W. Whitford in January 1941. Whitford continued morning and evening services, preached at the new government housing project (West Park) and even drove a school bus in 1943 and 1944. The Depression had seen the installation of pews to replace the old wood chairs. The growth of WWII allowed for a complete remodeling of the sanctuary, including pulpit furniture and carpets by the end of 1944. Deacons were established in 1941. Rev. Whitford continued at Summit until 1947.
WWII Brings Many Changes
In August 1948, Rev. Steele D. Goodale arrived. Summit had weathered the drastic population drop that occurred after the war and had again begun a period of growth. Rev. Goodale died in May 1950 and was replaced by Rev. Charles R. Zimbelman in June. During Zimbleman’s stay, the church organized into several social groups by age and the music program grew under his wife’s direction.
In March 1952, Rev. Zimbelman left to become a navy chaplain and by September was replaced by Rev. Leonard A. Watson. There were now again morning and evening services. In the evening, Rev. Watson used his powerful voice to lead the singing and there were often games such as “Biblical 20 Questions.” The church grew and by 1953 replaced the old electrified organ with a Baldwin Electronic Organ with a room-sized speaker enclosure that was installed in the tower. More room was obtained by digging a basement under the building. This provided three classrooms, a social hall with stage and fireplace (the Fireside Room), a modern kitchen and two bathrooms. Much of the work on the basement was by church members and involved dynamite to break up the hardpan and a small dump truck to haul the dirt to a ravine behind the church.
Rev. Robert J. Sargent became the next pastor in 1955. He was known for the quality of his sermons and “full houses” were not uncommon. By 1957 the church had acquired another house for a manse, the brick “Purvis House” that was just south of the church. Youth programs were very active and a large, old green bus was obtained to take groups on frequent trips. Rev. Sargent left in 1960.
Rev. Carl Nissen arrived in July of 1960. Growth continued and again expansion was needed. This time a new building was required. This new building would provide an enlarged sanctuary that would be the home of a new three-manual Balcom and Vaughan pipe organ. It also required demolition of the original manse on Farragut. The last regular service in the “old” building was on August 8, 1965. In early 1966 our first women elders, Marian Reynolds and Dolores Davis, were ordained. Rev. Nissen left in April 1966.
Rev. Melvin R. Unruh began his pastorate in November 1966. During this time the manse was used as a rental and a housing allowance was provided instead. The old building continued in use as the social hall and church school rooms. The old sanctuary was also the site of several Halloween “Haunted Houses” and square dances. In 1972, for the first time since 1902, when Rev. MacGuire and “Rev.” Whipkey served the church, we got a second pastor. Beginning as an intern and progressing to assistant and then associate pastor, Rev. Harold Staats provided much leadership to youth programs and many other programs until he left late in 1979.
After twenty years of leadership at Summit, Rev. Unruh retired in 1986. He continued as an active minister serving as interims and pulpit supplies in other congregations. After his first wife passed away, Mel married a woman named Alice Lord, and changed his name to Mel Lord-Unruh. Designated as Summit’s Pastor Emeritus, Mel continues to worship at Summit with Alice; they are much beloved by the congregation.
In the period 1986-1988, Rev. Craig Douglas Erickson served as interim pastor. His style was much different from Rev. Unruh and attendance declined, even though his sermons were reportedly some of the best that had ever been delivered at Summit.
Rev. James Patten arrived in 1988 and stayed until mid-1996. He brought a caring style that ended the decline in attendance and promoted sustained growth. Again there was need for expansion. Although many wanted to remodel the “old” building, it couldn’t be done because of asbestos, accessibility concerns and inefficient building layout. New construction was needed to replace the social hall and kitchen that would be lost when the old building was torn down. In addition, the old brick manse was torn down to increase parking space.
A long planning process that began in 1989 resulted in groundbreaking on May 31, 1992. Lack of funding required that the offices and classrooms planned for the lower level would initially be unfinished. A final service was held in the “old” building on November 1, 1992 and the new “wing” was occupied in January 1993. Changes to funding allowed the lower level to be finished by the fall of 1994 and the church offices were relocated.
The architecture of the buildings did not represent a classical church. In May 1993 it was determined that a “Christian Symbol” was needed. Many designs were considered and in December 1996 a large wood St. Andrews’ cross was installed outside on the Northeast corner of the sanctuary. It is referred to as an “interim cross” because, when funds became available, the originally planned architectural features planned for the building – including a cross – are planned to be installed. In July 1998 neon lighting behind the cross was installed.
In the summer of 1996, Rev. Donna Frey DeCou became our interim pastor. She was very popular with the congregation, and her husband, Bob, often favored us with French Horn solos. In the spring of 1997, the church obtained a new Steinway Grand Piano to compliment the pipe organ. Dr. Irene Bowling provided a dedication recital on April 27, 1997.
After a search that lasted nearly two years, a new pastor, Rev. Fred G. Garry, was selected. He first preached at Summit on July 26, 1998. With his wife Kathy and children, Joshua, Laura, Zoe and Ethan he began his pastorate in September 6, 1998.
In 2003, Fred Garry took a new call to the Waterton Presbtyerian Church in New York. Rev. Mark White served as Interim Pastor, and the next called pastor was Rev. Ed Kahl. Ed was a chaplain in the US Navy, and shared some of his time serving with the Navy reserves. Rev. Kahl served as pastor until May of 2012.
In August of 2012, Rev. Susie Beil was called as transitional pastor. After her first year, and under the New Form of Government of the PCUSA, the church called her to be the installed pastor. Susie is Summit’s first installed female pastor. Under her leadership the church developed a new mission statement: growing disciples in all generations by loving God, loving others, and serving the world. While at Summit, and with the help of the Marian Reynolds Foundation, Rev. Beil has been working on her Doctor of Ministry through Fuller Seminary.