SANTA ANA — The church leaders tried busing. They tried recruiting some of the area's Spanish-speaking residents to services in English. They tried everything to bring children, who symbolized the promise of a future, into the small church on Ross Street.
But in the end, they failed, victims of changing demographics that kept the Church of the Brethren, in the heart of what is now a Latino neighborhood, from replenishing its aging, Anglo membership.
On Sunday, 93 years after the church was established in Orange County, its last 22 members held their final service.
"Dissolving the congregation was our only solution," said George A. Horner, the church's moderator, its highest lay official. "It isn't good stewardship to try and keep [the church] up. The whole area changed and the people . . . are old and can't keep up the building. Everybody is retired and on fixed incomes, and it became impossible."
For Marcheta Pletcher, 66, a Lake Forest resident, Sunday's service was emotionally trying.
"My grandfather, William Peter, helped build this church," Pletcher said. "I was married in that church. My children were married in that church. . . . It's very hard."
But if Sunday was bittersweet for some, it was a joyous day for others.
"For us, it is a celebration," said Mario Serrano, 54, the Spanish-speaking pastor of Principe de Paz (Prince of Peace) Church, which has affiliated with the Church of the Brethren and will take over the building. "It's like a birth."
Serrano said he and his wife, Olga, who is co-pastor, have been holding services at the Church of the Brethren for four years and ministering to a growing congregation of about 50 members.
"Our community surrounding the church is now about 80% Latino," Serrano said. "We have Spanish-speaking people from Mexico and Central and South America."
At 67, Horner was among the younger members of the dying congregation. His wife, Luanna, 62, was born into the church, which included her mother and grandfather.
On Sunday, Pastor Jim McAvoy, who promised to keep the church alive for one more year when he arrived 13 1/2 years ago, thanked the membership for nearly 14 years of hard work and devotion. The final service also capped McAvoy's religious career; he retired immediately after giving his last sermon.
"These years have been the most rewarding to us," McAvoy told the congregation as he and his wife, Nancy, invited each member to visit them in their new home in Northern California.
The church was originally established in Germany and came to the United States in 1719, when the first congregation settled in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Horner said. The church soon spread into the Midwest, especially Kansas and Oklahoma.
Some of its members, introduced to the city of La Verne on one of the Santa Fe Railroad's promotional excursions in 1889, purchased the Lordsburg Hotel and some adjoining lots for $15,000 with the intention of converting the area into a college.
By the fall of 1891, the college, now known as La Verne University, opened with eight faculty members and 135 students, serving as a magnet for Church of the Brethren members in the Midwest.
In 1902, when Orange County was dotted with ranches, some members moved to Tustin. From there, the church moved to Lacy Street in Santa Ana, and later to Ross Street, where the present church was built in 1923 and remodeled in 1958.
At its peak in the mid-1960s, the Santa Ana church boasted 311 members. Under Pastor Robert Mays, the congregation grew strong and had a wide array of programs that included helping others during disasters, Horner said.
But subsequent decades brought a demographic shift from Anglo to Latino that changed the complexion of the city and the neighborhood surrounding the church. Middle-class Anglos left for other cities as Santa Ana and the neighborhood began to attract an immigrant population from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.
"We did well for quite a while," Horner said. "But the area around the church changed. And most of the kids of the members grew up and moved out. Then they left [the congregation] and the church kept dwindling and dwindling."
The church tried to minister to the Spanish-speaking, Horner said. But the mixing of the older generation of English-speaking members with younger, Spanish-speaking cultures "was too difficult," he said.
Church leaders tried bringing in different Spanish-speaking groups from the neighborhood but were unable to overcome the communications gap. They also tried busing Anglo children of members from other cities but found it was too expensive.
Annamae Rensberger, 57, a former member who now lives in Pomona, remembers a very different church from the one that passed into history Sunday.
"I grew up in that church," she said. "I was born there in 1938, and I went away to La Verne College in 1956.
"I remember it was a small church, very much family-oriented," Rensberger said. "There were probably three or four families that had a lot of members who moved from the Midwest to Santa Ana and we had generations of them."
Like the Horners, Rensberger is not sad the congregation has dissolved. She viewed Sunday's final service as a passage, part of an evolution.
"That generation is past," Rensberger said. "And any of the kids who grew up there have moved away long ago. . . . I think it's appropriate for the building to be used by people who are living there in that area."