Someone broke into the Journey Church in East Sonora between the night of Oct. 11 and the morning of Oct. 12 and stole a safe containing irreplaceable charter and membership record books for the church’s predecessor, the First Baptist Church of Sonora, organized in November 1857.
The burglary was reported at 10:15 a.m. Oct. 12 at The Journey Church on Mono Way, Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office incident logs state.
Pastor Randy Ehle said the stolen handwritten documents have “incredibly rich and irreplaceable historical value” for his congregation and for anyone who cares about Sonora and Tuolumne County history.
“There’s a lot of pride in the history of this community because we go back to the Gold Rush,” Ehle said Tuesday in an interview in the nave where people sit in pews during services at Journey Church. “The Journey Church, we’re part of that history.”
The “doing business as” name of the First Baptist Church was changed in 2011 to The Journey, A Church Pursuing Jesus, church records state. The official name is still First Baptist Church of Sonora.
A window on the past
Ehle shared an image of the first page of the First Baptist Church of Sonora’s first historical record book. In flowing handwritten ink the page begins:
Sonora, Nov 22nd 1857
Pursuant to notice a meeting was held at the House of C.L. Street in Sonora at 3 oclock P.M. the above date, by the friends favorable to the organization of a Baptist Church, to take into consideration the expediency and practicibility of said object.
That date is recognized as the day the First Baptist Church of Sonora was formally organized, with a Rev. C. King as pastor. Street, a local attorney, eventually lived in the red mansion on Snell Street across from St. James Episcopal Church, also known as the Red Church, which was built in 1859. Street was a prominent figure in the organization and funding of the new First Baptist Church of Sonora.
Services were initially held at the Tuolumne County courthouse.
Church historians say William Sugg, the former slave freed in Sonora who built what is today known as Sugg House on Theall Street, helped build the First Baptist Church. In 1860, the First Baptist Church began meeting in a building where today Aronos Research Womens Club is at Elkin Street and North Stewart.
County historians note that from February 1880 to January 1884, Rev. Andrew Judson Sturtevant served as pastor, he lived at 61 Snell, and he left the church due to “bickering and petty problems among the congregation.”
In May 1897, the church building was destroyed by fire. In 1936, the church was suffering low attendance and recorded its lowest offering from the congregation on record, “7 cents! Congregation disbanded, selling the property at Elkin & Stewart to the Aronos Club for $750.”
The church reconstituted in 1959, and met for a time at Hope Lane and Jackson Street. Church leaders purchased property in East Sonora in the 1960s and built the current church building at 14225 Mono Way.
Ehle said he and his congregation at Journey Church have been meeting in person since the end of June, with streaming services on social media. He estimates the current church membership is around 45 people. Pre-pandemic attendance was 50 to 55 people, he estimated, and in recent months attendance has been more like 20 to 25 people.
They had one service at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 11, before Ehle and his wife came back to the church for a meeting with a college ministry, Cru, about 9 p.m. The break-in at the church was discovered by staff with a nonprofit home school tutoring program about 8:30 a.m. Oct. 12.
“There was a window open, and a door left ajar,” Ehle said. “The physical equipment stolen, a laptop and a Canon camera, they are replaceable.”
The historical records are irreplaceable, Ehle said.
“We’d like to have those back, as much for the community as the church.”
The stolen safe containing the church’s historic ledgers was a locked cube metal safe, about 20 inches by 20 inches by 20 inches, painted off-white, with a keypad and a key slot. Sadly, Ehle said, “All of our keys were stolen, too.”
The books inside the safe are about a foot tall, 7 to 8 inches wide, and three-quarters of an inch thick. They look a bit like accountant ledgers, and the words in them are all handwritten, Ehle said.
“There are two of them,” Ehle said. “One of them has a slate-blue cover, I recall. Both of them are hardbound. They are record books of the church’s formation and meetings over the first 40 years, with dates and names of people who met. The pages of the books were in pretty good shape for being more than 150 years old. I could turn the pages without fear they would fall apart.”
Crime in a church
To demonstrate what evidence showed of the break-in, Ehle walked through what he believed to be the path of the burglar or burglars.
Somebody outside the church building apparently used a blue canister to stand on and cut a small hole in a screen, then stepped onto a table inside the church, leaving footprints on the table. The individual or individuals then went to the sound tech booth at the back of the nave, where the laptop and camera were taken.
Whoever was inside the church then went through the church’s baptistry, the designated place where the sacrament of Christian baptism is performed, to get through a side door into Ehle’s office, where the safe was last seen.
“The baptistry, this is where we as Christians and Baptists recognize baptism,” he said. “We use a full tank of water, up to 800 gallons. Baptism signifies our identification with Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection. We use a lot of water to recreate the imagery of going down under the water to identify with Jesus Christ, and coming up out of the water is the rebirth of Christ.”
Before the burglary, there were four large candles on the front edge of the baptistry facing where the congregation sits. On Tuesday, there were only three candles. Ehle said he found the fourth candle on a step outside the side door to his office.
“I watch too many cop shows,” Ehle said. “I do my own investigations. I found the candle there before the sheriff’s deputies arrived.”
Ehle posted about the burglary to social media on Oct. 12, and the post had received more than 40 comments and 75 shares by Tuesday afternoon.
The contents of the safe have no monetary value, Ehle said in the post.
“If you happen to see them lying around,” Ehle said, “please get them to the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office.”
Many people who commented offered prayers that the stolen books will be recovered. Ehle said he is grateful for the prayers.
“We believe God answers prayer, and the community could be part of an answer to prayer in this case,” Ehle said. “If someone finds these things, regardless of what you believe, you are part of the answer to prayer. Because right now, so many people are praying for the return of these historic, irreplaceable things.”
Ehle urged anyone with information about the break-in and the church’s priceless handwritten ledgers to call the Sheriff’s Office at (209) 533-5815 or Sonora Police Department at (209) 532-8143. Journey Church of Sonora can be reached at (209) 532-4681.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.