Montclair Methodist Church
(The Church that Dares)
The Montclair Methodist Church had its start in Oakland, California in 1872. Of course, in those days it was a German Calvary Methodist congregation that worshiped at two different locations during its existence; downtown and later at 38th and Telegraph Ave. By the late 1940’s the congregation felt that an “outreach church” should and could be established in the newly expanding Oakland hills community of Montclair. It was probably not by coincidence that one of their more influential members, W.G.P. Blumert owned three homes on Snake Road in Montclair and felt that the vacant property directly across the street from him on Mountain Blvd might be the perfect spot for the home of a new church.
Negotiations began in 1949 between the German Calvary Methodist Church and the California/Nevada General Conference of the Methodist Church. It was quickly moved that; indeed, a new church could be viable in the Montclair community and plans were formed for the building of a new church at 2162 Mountain Blvd at the corner of Snake Road. W.G.P. (Bill) Blumert himself purchased the property and made it available to the new endeavor.
The church was designed by David A. Wright and Oakland building contractor, George Peshel was hired as the general contractor. The new church was built at a cost of $60,000. A call from the Methodist Church was sent out seeking a Pastor wanting to start a new congregation.
Ground breaking and cornerstone lying occurred on August 14, 1950. Those in attendance were Bishop Donald H. Tippett, Bishop of the California-Nevada Conference, Oakland Mayor, Clifford H. Rishell and other local dignitaries. It was announced at that time that the Reverend, Dr. Elmer W.J. Schmitt of Philadelphia, PA had been called to the pastorate of the new church. He was to assume his duties in the early fall. Even though the new church was being sponsored by the German Calvary Methodist Church of Oakland, this was to be a brand-new congregation and would take the name, Montclair Methodist Church.
In September, 1950, the Rev., Dr. Elmer Schmitt arrived in Montclair running at a whirlwind pace. Dr. Schmitt was to be the new pastor of a new church in Montclair and it was his intention that absolutely everyone in the Montclair hills was going to know about his new church. Elmer (as he liked to be called) made it a point to visit, join, and associate himself with every civic group and formal organization known to man and Montclair. Elmer joined the local Lion’s Club, the local Kiwanis Club, and the Montclair Men’s Breakfast Club. He would have joined the local Boy and Girl Scouts troops but was too old. He attended every public meeting of every Woman’s group, every public Scouting Court of Honor, every store opening, picnic, merchants’ days, and probably kissed every newborn baby born in the Montclair hills. He wasn’t running for public office but he spoke at every event that would hand him a microphone! During the early and mid 1950’s, it seemed as if Elmer’s picture appeared in most of the photos published by the Oakland Tribune!
The newly built church was ready for occupancy on Sunday, February 4, 1951. Consecration Services were held on that Sunday and were officiated by the Rev. Donald H. Tippett, Bishop of the California-Nevada Conference of the Methodist Church as well as Oakland Mayor, Clifford H. Rishell. Dr. Schmitt announced that when it came time for the Church to welcome its new founding members, they were all to be known as “Charter Members” and would be given a key to the front door of the church because it was “their Church”. He also promised that on “Charter Member Sunday” (Sunday, April 1, 1951), each member would be greeted at the Pulpit and that his or her full name would be memorized and pronounced correctly before the congregation. One hundred and twenty Charter Members were presented on that Sunday.
On Charter Member Sunday, most of the front-row pews were filled by members of the W.G.P. Blumert family. Along with William (“Pa”) and his wife were their three sons and their wives and children (as I remember that amounted to about 15 persons). “Pa” Blumert owned the first three residences on the North side of Snake Road, across the street from the church; he and his wife lived at 5529, the next home, 5537 was occupied by one of their sons, Wilfur Blumert and his family and the next home at 5549 Snake was the “manse” for the pastor, Elmer and Ruth Schmitt, their two children, Terry and Taffy (“TNT”) and Mrs. Gladys Hamma (Ruth’s mother). On Sunday mornings, all three homes were the site for all of the Sunday school classes as there were no accommodations in the church building for classes.
The church immediately gained much local, as well as National recognition due to its very modern structural appearance. Its somewhat “Quonset hut” roofline was accented by a complete glass wall facing Mountain Blvd. The 80 by 60-foot sanctuary design had a series of wood arches holding the open ceiling stretching across the entire sanctuary floor. For a time, many architectural schools and classes were given tours of the new building, showing what could be accomplished in new design.
Interestingly, I don’t remember that there were very many members of the original German Calvary Methodist Church joining the Montclair congregation with one very important exception. John Lee Strobel, his wife, Margaret and daughter, Esther were founding members of the Montclair church and John remained a member of that church until his death in 2003! Every Sunday morning, John and his family drove from El Cerrito (their home) to Montclair for Sunday worship services as well as weekly Bible Study classes and Choir practice on Wednesday evenings. It is interesting to note that John was a long-time employee of the Pacific Painting and Decorating Company that was owned by W.G.P. Blumert. The ranks of the Choir and the Women’s Society were filled with the Blumerts and the Strobels and for the first few years of the church’s existence, we were fortunate to have so many Blumerts and Strobels in the congregation.
On Tuesday, April 10, 1951, an article in the Oakland Tribune told of a robbery that had occurred involving the Montclair Methodist Church. The new Church needed to raise $3000.00 for a new organ and one of the ways that Dr. Schmitt proposed to raise the money was by collecting “Pennies from Heaven”, not only from the congregation, but from the community at large. A large, 5-gallon water bottle was placed in the church’s narthex as well as one in the display window of a Montclair Village merchant. All members and passers-by were invited to drop their pennies into the jar.
The Sunday, April 8th, the jar in the church’s narthex was almost full, containing approximately 25,000 to 30,000 pennies. Sometime Sunday night, a couple of “burglars” broke into the church and tried to move the penny jar out. The glass water bottle was far too heavy to slide across the floor and when they grabbed it by the neck and pulled, the bottle shattered! Needless to say, the scattered pennies mixed with broken glass was too much for the would-be burglars. They didn’t get away with much.
The Tribune article stated that an unidentified youngster called the church to offer his piggy-bank collection while another unidentified donor offered his Lincoln Penny Collection to help the church. I suspect that the article was dreamed up and “planted” by Dr. Schmitt as this was just the kind of publicity that Elmer was good at obtaining.
It wasn’t too long after the church had been established that Dr. Schmitt had a large banner draped across the front of the church that announced that Montclair Methodist Church was THE CHURCH THAT DARES! As late as 1959 all church bulletins still made that pronouncement on the cover of the weekly bulletin. I’m not sure that most people understood what was meant by the sign but it gave Dr. Schmitt unlimited opportunities to “explain” it to all that asked. He never stopped looking for opportunities to enlist help or membership.
On February 23, 1953, Montclair Methodist Church celebrated its second anniversary with a celebration that included presenting Golden Keys to distinguished members of the congregation. Golden keys to the church’s front door were presented to Mrs. Gladys Hamma (Dr. Schmitt’s mother-in-law), John Strobel and Mrs. Beverly (Wilfur) Blumert, all founding members. Also presented Golden Keys were Mr. & Mrs. Bob Motter, designated as the church’s “Couple of the Year”.
By the mid-50’s, the need for a meeting/recreation hall and Sunday school classrooms became urgent and a Capital Expenditure (building) campaign began with plans drawn up to purchase the property immediately next door that would just about double the size of the church. Church meetings and dinners no longer had to be held at the Blumert or Schmitt homes. Ground breaking ceremonies for the new $100,000 educational unit were held on April 18, 1958. Participating in the ceremony were Dr. E.W.J. Schmitt, Dr., Dr. Georgia Harkness, Keith V. Blumert, Amadee Sourdry, chairman of the building committee; Robert Motter, Mrs. Clifford Randall, Harry Miller and Martindale Andres, President of the Montclair Business Association.
Contract for construction of the two-story, lift-slab structure has been awarded to the Vernon W. Bernard Co. The building will have a circular social hall, class room and offices.
In 1960 the United States Postal Service, looking to expand services in the Montclair/hill area, announced plans for constructing a new Post Office in a residential area at 5529 and 5537 Snake Road. The homes of W.G.P. and Wilfur Blumert! The needed property included a vacant lot on the corner of Mountain Blvd. and Snake Road, adjoining the Blumert properties. The Oakland City Council at a regular meeting unanimously rejected the Post Offices’ proposal after more than 60 Snake Road residences wrote to the City of their objections due to increased traffic and decreased property values The City Council unanimously denied the whole plan.
The Reverend, Doctor Schmitt was truly a man of God! He had lots of “spirit” and lots of “will” but no idea of how to physically carry out his many fruitful ideas: He had no manual dexterity whatsoever. His fertile mind was forever on some present (or future) project that he expected other people to carry out for him. Elmer and his automobile were no exception. His 1949, blue, four-door sedan was merely a means to get him from one project to another. He didn’t know of such things as changing the oil, parking in designated spaces and such; he did know that he had to keep it filled with gas. Elmer didn’t bother to look out for posts or poles that were behind him while he was backing up, nor did he consider the consequences of rounding a corner when there wasn’t room to make the turn. Designated parking spots were merely a place in which to point the car, never bothering to place the car within the allotted spaces. Many times The Schmitt car was presented to the Bob Motter Body Shop with dents obtained because his car was not properly parked and was hit by another passing auto. Therefore, it was no surprise when Elmer would present himself and the Ford to my Dad, who owned the auto body repair shop, asking why the front door wouldn’t open, due to being smashed against some inanimate object. My dad would always do the repairs at no charge; such was one of the responsibilities of being a member of Elmer’s church.
At one point, Dr. Schmitt thought it would be great if he and his family had a small travel trailer in which to take small retreats. The concept of backing a trailer totally eluded Elmer as he had no clue of how to maneuver into a backed-up trailer space. He tried! The results were always disastrous! Poles, trees, shrubs, gates, fences and people were always in great jeopardy when Elmer attempted to back up his trailer. On one of his trips to the body shop to have some more work done, my dad suggested to Elmer that there might be a way to make trailer backing easier for him. Dad solved Elmer’s backing up problems by installing another trailer hitch ball to the front bumper of the Ford. This allowed Elmer to hook the trailer up to the front of his car, thereby pushing the trailer into the back-up spot without have to go through the thought process of how to make the trailer do something entirely different than the car was doing. Elmer mastered that particular sequence and had no further problems with the travel-trailer.
My last remembrances of Montclair Methodist Church were in 1959 when my wife, Mary Jane and I were married (at Montclair Presbyterian Church) and the reception was held at Montclair Methodist Church. In 1963 we moved from Montclair to the Sacramento, CA area but in 1986, came back to Montclair (from Sacramento) to attend the 50th anniversary celebration of Dr. E.W. J. Schmitt’s fifty years in the ministry.
On June 6, 1961, the California/Nevada Conference of the Methodist Church announced that the Rev., Dr. E.W.J. Schmitt would be reassigned as pastor of Grace Methodist Church in San Francisco, CA. After eleven years, the founding pastor of “THE CHURCH THAT DARES” was leaving Montclair. In July, 1961, the Rev. Robert Schlager took over as Pastor of the Montclair Methodist Church.
I know nothing of the history of the Montclair church during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. It was only when I a read an announcement in 2006 that I learned that the Montclair Methodist Church was being offered for sale. It appears that the membership of the congregation had dropped to fewer than 60 persons and they were unable to keep up on the deferred maintenance. The roof leaked and there were structural problems and improvements that the congregation could just not afford. It was decided that the church would be sold and that the Montclair congregation would look for another Methodist church, eventually merging with Trinity United Methodist Church of Berkeley, CA.
In the end, the Montclair Methodist Church had changed to a multiracial and multicultural church of all ages that advocated for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community: A far departure from the 1872 German Calvary Methodist beginnings of “The Church that Dares” of the early 1950’s.
Rev. Dr. Elmer William John Schmitt
b. Sept 9, 1914
m. 1938 to Ruth Hamma
d. Mar 17, 1991, Santa Clara County, CA