It might be one of the smaller churches in town, but First Church of God in Santa Maria has the heart of a congregation twice its size.

Such spirit seems rooted in the church/s early days.

When the church began 50 years ago, only about a dozen or so members made up the congregation. Feeling compelled to worship together, but lacking a building in which to do so, the members began holding prayer meetings in their homes.

After some time, the church rented space in a building 77 but that, too, didn/t feel like a place members could call their own.

Then Estelle Leisch, who was the first pastor of the church, and her husband, Frank, gave the small congregation a church they could be proud of.

The couple, who came to Santa Maria in 1954 to start the Church of God church here, purchased a house, with an adjacent vacant lot, on North Elizabeth Street.

Built mostly by volunteers, construction of the new church began in 1956. The building was dedicated the following year.

Five decades later, the church and the devotion of those first members remain.

The Leisch/s home has since been moved to another location in town.

Memories of days gone by were on longtime member Mary Longest/s mind recently as the church/s 50th anniversary draws near.

"Fifty years is a milestone," said Longest, who has attended the church since 1954. "There/s a real sense of unity here."

First Church of God at 613 N. Elizabeth St., will celebrate its golden anniversary during its 10:45 a.m. worship service this Sunday. The public is invited.

Included in the service will be a video presentation of the church/s history, created by Youth Pastor Todd Banter.

A lunch will follow for those who attend.

"The church stretches through each generation," said Senior Pastor Phil Canipe, who has been pastor for five years and describes the church as nondenominational.

Several of the members have grown up in the church, Longest noted, and that unites members personally as well as spiritually.

"It is like a big family," Longest said. "When someone has a need, the others are there for you."

Despite an average attendance of between 60 and 70 at Sunday services, Canipe said the dedication of following and spreading the message of Christ is what defines the church/s strength.

"I think God is at work in churches of all sizes," he said.

Another sign of its strength as a congregation, Banter noted, is the number of members who have become pastors and gone on to minister in other churches. That, he said, shows the church/s message has a farther reach than just locally.

While its residential location and small congregation size remain challenges toward further growth, Canipe praised his congregation.

"There/s something about a small church," Canipe said.

* Staff Writer Britt Fairchild can be reached at 739-2220 or by e-mail at bfairchild@pulitzer.net.

Nov. 13, 2004

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