A familiar Oakhurst landmark in the center of town will turn 120 years old this June.
The Little Church on the Hill, located on a knoll in Oakhill Cemetery, was consecrated in 1894, serving the entire mountain and foothill region of Eastern Madera County as the only house of worship for nearly half a century.
Little Church Foundation chairman Jackie Mallouf outlined the current status of the preservation work completed and the work that needs to be done.
Preservation/restoration work to-date has included a new roof in 1991 and the installation of sugar pine siding in 1995 with labor provided by E Clampus Vitus Grub Gulch Chapter, stained glass altar and angel windows installed in 1998, and the installation and dedication in 2005 of eight stained glass side windows commemorating pioneer families involved with the church.
Woodpeckers, sapsuckers, moisture, and other weathering elements have contributed to the deterioration of the exterior siding of the church. The stability of the walls, including those supporting many of the stained glass windows is now compromised.
After the Point of Historical Interest designation in 1994, the Madera Cemetery Board of Trustees, which oversees five county cemeteries, including Oakhill, felt they did not have the time or personnel to take on the research needed to authentically restore the Little Church.
"Cemetery Board policy does not allow using tax dollars for the maintenance or upkeep of the Little Church so it was unclear how any substantial work on the building could be paid for," Mallouf said.
Because of this, the The Little Church on the Hill Foundation was formed in 1995 to advise the cemetery district on matters regarding the church. The foundation was the inspiration of retired newsman and reporter, Dwight H. Barnes, from Washington, D.C., who had seen many instances of civic advisory groups working successfully with government agencies.
The Little Church Foundation has been fundraising so that Hardie board siding might be installed on the west side, front and back sides, and bell tower of the church just as it has already been installed on the east wall of the church. The siding is also known as fiber cement siding, a material composed of a combination of sand, cement, and cellulose.
The board and batten design of the current siding can be duplicated with the Hardie board siding, which is impervious to woodpecker damage. It is even stamped with a pine grain pattern, according to Mallouf.
"We did the worst wall first since the windows were shifting and there were gaps between the windows and their frames," Mallouf said. "The new east wall has a 50-year life now instead of a 15-year life that it would have had we used sugar pine siding."
In the past, much of the preservative and restorative work was completed with volunteer labor. Now, because of liability and insurance concerns, all work must be done by licensed contractors. As a result of these constraints, the foundation hired Doug Reynolds of Mariposa to install the stained glass window frames and to install the Hardie board siding on the east side of the building.
He will continue with the project as soon as funds are available. Reynolds has completed a number of renovations on historical projects in the Mountain Area. The four custom window frames will be constructed by Mike Bushell of RPM Planning in Fresno, who also worked on the east wall in 2011.
Mallouf anticipates the work and materials needed to complete the west wall window frames and siding will cost about $14,000, and the front and back refurbishing costs will be from $3,000 to $5,000 each. The bell tower on the front side of the church houses a 300-pound bell and that tower may have to be reinforced, adding to the cost of the project.
The foundation board feels that preserving the west wall is the highest priority since that wall contains four of the stained glass pioneer windows. The foundation has about $13,000 through donations and fundraising towards this next phase of restoration.
"The board is aware that delays amount to increased costs for materials and labor, so several events are being scheduled for 2014 hoping the entire project can be finished this year," Mallouf said.
According to excerpts from "The Little Church on the Hill, a Monument to Volunteerism" by historian Dwight Barnes, this was the first church in the Southern Sierra and, most likely, the last of its kind in California.
For more than a century, Christ Church, more familiarly known as the Little Church on the Hill, has stood as a symbol of the spirit of the community now known as Oakhurst. Built some 115 years ago by a group of determined volunteers, it has been preserved and restored by volunteers.
Everyone had a hand in its construction, including an accused stage robber who subsequently became a leading citizen. Years later another group of volunteers of such diverse interests as the local Grandmothers' Club and the fun-loving historians of the Grub Gulch Chapter 41-49 ... of E Clampus Vitus saw that the church was saved. The group restored so that it would stand for another 100 years.
Originally located on what today is still called Chapel Hill above Fresno Flats Road (425B near Crane Valley Road 426), Christ Church served all the community, sometimes under the jurisdiction of the Episcopalians and others under the Presbyterians.
Regardless of which faith provided the leadership, it truly was a community church. Family picnics and community potlucks were held on its grounds. The big old bell, which could be heard for five miles or more, tolled out the years of pioneers who died. It sometimes was rung as a fire alarm, and old timers reported it rang wildly all day Nov. 11, 1918, at the news of the end of World War I.
Additional information about the history of The Little Church can be found at www.savethelittlechurch.org. There are various categories of membership for those wishing to make a donation: $20-supporting member; with a $50 donation one can choose one of two 8 x 10 color photos of the Little Church (both done by Mallouf); $100 donation includes both photos of the Little Church; and a $225 donation includes a choice of one of five limited00 edition prints of the Little Church being moved from its original location on Chapel Hill to its current location.