History behind one of SW Fresno's oldest churches

FRESNO, Calif.

The monumental structure and it's soaring golden dome was patterned after churches they left behind in Russia. But over the years the neighborhood and the church changed. And the folks in the church now are not German.

What was once the Lutheran Cross Church is now the Fresno Temple of God in Christ. The African American congregation moved in when the Germans moved north, more than 40 years ago. Harry Miller is the pastor. He said, "The building is a wonderful place for us to praise the lord and I think our German counterparts feel the same way."

The Volga-Germans may not be in the building. But their presence is still felt. Inscriptions on the stained glass windows, and on the walls, in German are reminders of the history that is still close by.

Norm Bitters grew up in the house across the street from the Cross Church his family and friends attended. He said, "The role of the church is the center point of their lives really. Like my dad, I always think of him working, sleeping, going to church, and that's how our German people from Russia were. Hardworking farmers."

It's estimated there are some 25 thousand descendants of those Volga Germans still in the Fresno area. A museum dedicated to preserving their history is run by one of those descendants, Dave Foth. He's proud to show us around. "What we have here in their museum is west Fresno, Germantown, artifacts. Things people had in their basements, attics."

Germantown is no more. Many of the homes in the once proud and tidy neighborhood are boarded up, abandoned. There are two other former German churches within a block of the old Cross Church. One, the Zion Church to the north, is still in use by a Hispanic congregation, another to the east is abandoned.

The Cross Church hangs on as the Fresno Temple. Built for a congregation of 15-hundred, it now has about one-hundred active members. Keeping a massive, nearly one-hundred-year-old building going isn't easy. The stained glass windows alone need thousands of dollars in repairs.

"It is a year, monthly, weekly challenge," Pastor Miller said. "This is an old building. It is a huge building. We try to maintain it. We'd like to do a lot of work on this building to keep it here forever."

The church is a survivor. When the Highway 99 freeway cut Germantown in half, just after World War II, the congregation raised funds to have this huge building moved two blocks. It took six months.

As the church approaches its one-hundredth birthday, Pastor Miller and his congregation hope to keep the building, and their faith in it, alive. He said, "It's not the building, it's who's in the building and the lord is in the building."

The 100th anniversary of the start of construction of the church is next year. The current congregation is hoping to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and looking for help in getting it restored.

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