With some prayers and tears, the Anglican parishioners at St. James' Church in Sonora formally moved out of the building on Wednesday.
The congregation at the historic Red Church gathered for a final noontime service before handing over the building to the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. It was the final act of closure following years of legal wrangling over who owns the oft-photographed building at Highway 49 and Snell Street, as well as another in Turlock.
During the service, church members and leaders said prayers, sang hymns and shared stories of experiences at the church, built in 1859. After the service, they left and reconvened for a celebratory service at St. Michaels and All Angels Anglican Church on Highway 108, which will now serve as their home church.
"This is a day that is bittersweet," Bishop Eric Menees, of the Fresno-based Anglican Diocese, said.
Some dabbed away tears during the service, recalling memories of the church, its longtime priest, the late Rev. Wolfgang Krismanits, and his wife, LaDonn.
Menees, who led the service, recalled his first time in the Red Church shortly after becoming bishop at the diocese. He recalled entering the church with Krismanits and being "so taken" by the space.
"I walked in here, I … It was just like, the Lord is here," he told the congregation.
While the last service at the church was Wednesday, the legal settlement between the two dioceses has the Anglican church officially turning over the building by July 1. St. Francis Anglican Church in Turlock held a similar service last month, as their congregation also moved to a new location as the result of the legal settlement between the Anglican and Episcopalian dioceses.
Both the Red Church and St. Francis have been involved in legal battles with the San Joaquin Episcopal Church over who owns the church properties. The churches were previously under the authority of the Episcopal Church, but their affiliations were shifted in 2007 when the previous San Joaquin Diocese pulled out of the Episcopal Church and joined the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone.
The legal fight has involved multiple churches in the San Joaquin Valley region. It originated when then-Bishop John-David Schofield pulled the local diocese out of the Episcopal Church and brought most Mother Lode Episcopal clergy with him. The disagreement stemmed from ideological differences, with the more conservative wings of the church taking exception to the Episcopal church's liberal stances on gay and female clergy.
The Episcopal Church later sued, claiming the now Anglican churches do not have the right to take the properties with them.
Menees referenced the legal issues during the service, saying there is no set prayer or liturgy for being forced to vacate a church because of lawsuits.
"The best thing to do is pray and sing hymns," he said.