Finding Meaning

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By Skip Hellewell

In last week’s column, I promised to tell the story of Laguna’s first official schoolhouse where four churches also got their start. To set the scene, here’s a quick history of pioneer Laguna, beginning in the 1870s when extended family groups began to settle the area.

The Thurston family came first, leaving the Utah Territory to settle Aliso Canyon where The Ranch is today. They were followed by the Goff family around Aliso Beach, and the Brooks family who founded Arch Beach. The Rogers purchased the Damron homestead and subdivided downtown Laguna, building a ranch house where city hall now stands. (The land north of Broadway was Irvine Ranch.) The Thompson clan settled in Laguna Canyon near today’s El Toro Road, followed by the Hemenways who named Canyon Acres. Other families included the Clapps, Butterfields (Laguna’s first dentist), and the Rodgers. There were many ties between these families and most were Mormon.

Joe Thurston, in his book “Laguna Beach of Early Days,” told of potluck socials with dancing to a one-string fiddle: “There were quite a number of people who had settled in Laguna Canyon and at the beach . . . many of these people belonged to the [Mormon] church [but] did not dance.  While the Mormons in Utah encouraged dancing, and these people claimed to be Mormons, they considered it a sin to dance, so if any of them came the evening would be spent playing games . . . [like] ‘Post Office’. . . Just why it was a sin to dance but not a sin to play kissing games, we never did find out.”

There were enough of these kissing kids to petition for a school and one was built in 1888, sometimes referred to as the Mormon schoolhouse, near El Toro Road. Laguna’s first church, the Laguna Branch of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Missouri-based) was founded in 1879, with meetings later held in the schoolhouse. The difficulty of farming with uncertain water combined with the recession of the 1890s caused some families to move away and the church closed. The schoolhouse was put on rollers and moved to Canyon Acres for the children there. It served until 1908 when a two-room schoolhouse was built (today’s Legion Hall, first located where the high school is).

Joseph and Catherine Yoch, owners of the Laguna Hotel (predecessor to the Hotel Laguna), then purchased the schoolhouse and moved it to today’s Catalina Street to found a Catholic Church (known first as St. Joseph, later as St. Catherine of Siena). When the Catholics built a larger church on Temple Terrace, the artist Joseph Kleitsch bought the old schoolhouse, now moved to Thorough and Legion Streets, converting it to a home, studio and art academy. He died soon after, unfortunately, and his widow, herself an artist and sculptor, rented it to the Laguna Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Utah-based).

Around 1948 the widow Kleitsch rented the schoolhouse to the first Little Church by the Sea, an inter-denominational venture by husband-and-wife team Frank and Wynte Dowell who pioneered a nightly radio devotional and periodical called the “Revelator.” They must have done well, for after Kleitsch’s 1950 death, the Dowells purchased the property and tore the old schoolhouse down to build the current building. In 1980, Dowell sold the property to a group from the Calvary Evangelical Church of Laguna Beach who kept the name Little Church by the Sea (a.k.a. Church by the Sea) and worship there to this day. And that’s the story of the old, well-traveled schoolhouse and the meaning it gave to early Laguna. (If anyone has information to add, like what became of the school bell, please contact the email address below.)

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]


Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 6 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish), 5:30 p.m.  There are 8 a.m. masses on other days and Saturday 5:30 p.m. vigils.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8:00 & 10:30 a.m.

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.




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  1. Its nice to know that people of faith first settled Laguna Beach. They tried to fill churches then and we are still trying today 140 years later with Skip’s help. Thanks for uniting us all in that effort in such a kind way.


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