The first two churches to be founded in Tulare were the Congregational (1872) and Methodist (1883). In 1885, A.W. DeWitt, James Brown Zumwalt's father-in-law, gathered together a group of neighbors to establish Tulare's third church.
Affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, or Christian Church, the first meeting place was in the one-room Enterprise School west of Tulare.
One Sunday in February, 1886 became a day of special significance when a young girl, Etta Moody, became the new church's first convert. Since the school, of course, was not equipped with a baptistery, the ceremony was conducted in Cameron Creek at a spot known as "the crossing", a ford about a quarter of a mile south of the Zumwalt Ranch.
The church soon outgrew the little school building, and in 1886 a site was purchased at the northeast corner of Tulare Avenue and G Street. The new building featured an impressive steeple, which has long since disappeared.
"Meeting Stairs" gave access to the sanctuary. Such stairs are often found in nineteenth century churches throughout the south. Ladies, in their floor-length dresses, were accustomed to using one set of stairs, gentlemen the other. After all, if a man were to follow a woman up a single stairway he might catch a glimpse of feminine ankles.
The church was officially dedicated on April 24, 1887 after an expenditure of $9000. On that day 85 worshippers signed a "Church Covenant". Between 1924 and 1939 the auditorium was enlarged, a basement social hall created, and Sunday-School rooms built. The sanctuary is the oldest continuously operating church building in Tulare.
In 1948 the late Walter Ray, a long time church member, bequeathed $138,000 to his church. Using these funds as a starting point, a new campus consisting of a sanctuary, social hall, and administrative unit was built at the northeast corner of Pleasant Avenue and M Street in 1960-61. A small chapel was added in 1964, donated by Harry & Vilma Morrison as a memorial to Thomas & Lorraine Mitchell. The old church was sold to the Mormons, who in turn sold it to a Spanish language church when they built their present LDS sanctuary on Merritt Avenue.
During the first three decades of Tulare's life, a total of seven churches took root in the growing community.
In 1887 St. John's Episcopal Church was officially established as the 4th oldest church in Tulare, but not until 1901 was a small sanctuary built on the northwest corner of King Avenue and G Street. During the mid-1950's the congregation moved to new buildings on East Prosperity Avenue.
The First Baptist Church was organized on June 25, 1887, the 5th oldest, and three years later a house of worship was built on the northwest corner of King Avenue and M Street. In 1918, this little chapel was replaced by a larger brick building on the same site. Today Gordon's Electric occupies that corner. In 1964 the present complex was dedicated at the corner of Cross Avenue and Cherry Street.
St. Aloysius Catholic Church made its appearance in Tulare in 1888 on the northeast corner of Kern Avenue and F Street. That small wood-frame structure was replaced by a mission-style brick building on the same site in 1925. This building was razed in 1970 when the present church building on Pleasant Avenue was formally dedicated.
In 1905 the First Church of God was the seventh church to be born in Tulare. Their first meeting house was on the southwest corner of Inyo Avenue and D Street. Ahead of its time, the organizing pastor was a woman - Mrs. Mary "Mamie" Bisconer, and she continued in that capacity for the next 14 years. In 1941 this first church was replaced by a larger and more modern structure on the northeast corner of Kern Avenue and D Street. The congregation moved to its present facility on Blackstone Street in 1968, and the Kern Avenue building was sold to the Apostolic Assembly of God.
Today more than 50 churches serve the spiritual needs of the 55,000 Tulareans.
Derryl Dumermuth is a retired TUHS mathematics teacher, author of A Town Called Tulare and co-author with his wife, Wanda, of Tulare Legends and Trivia from A to Z. Both books were written as fundraisers for the Tulare Historical Museum and can be purchased in the Museum's gift shop.
1. The original Christian Church, Tulare Avenue and G Street.
2. The current Christian Church, Pleasant Avenue and M Street.