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June 7, 2011 > History: 75th Anniversary for First Assembly of God

History: 75th Anniversary for First Assembly of God

Members of the First Assembly of God recently celebrated the church's 75th anniversary. Theirs is an odyssey that began in a small tent on Centerville's Main Street and led to the development of one of the area's largest religious institutions.

Its founder, Joseph Irwin Rodrigues, drove through Centerville with his wife in 1933 and felt compelled to return and establish a church. Of Portuguese descent, he wanted to reach the Portuguese speaking community. With some faithful members of his Newman congregation, he moved to Centerville and set up a tent next to the Presbyterian Church on Main Street (now Fremont Blvd.) and Bonde Way.

One of the members was the widowed mother of eight-year-old Angela Silveira, who remembers sitting on a bench with her siblings in what seemed a very large tent and feeling sleepy because services were held at night. During the intense winter of 1933, the group met in the Presbyterian Church, and in the spring rented a building on Maple Street. Services were initially held in Portuguese, but gradually converted to English.

After Rev. Rodrigues left in 1941, differences in planning for the church's future caused half of the congregation to withdraw and begin meeting elsewhere - a separation that would last 40 years. A member of the group bought a building in Newark and offered it to the new congregation rent free. In 1948, Rev. Henry Vancil became pastor, and led an almost all-volunteer force to build a new church, completed in 1950. Continued growth required the purchase of another property on Cedar Boulevard in 1974; a new building was finished three years later.

From the mid 50s until 1972 the church prospered, led by Pastors Andrew and Lillian Rahner. Members who grew up in the 60's and 70's have warm memories of the many activities available to youth groups. They recall that after Sunday services and other gatherings they headed to Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor or pizza parlors, forging friendships that continue to this day.

While the Newark church prospered, the Centerville church faltered, but under the leadership of Rev. John Collins in the 50s, attendance increased, and the church - now called First Assembly of God - bought property on Hansen Avenue. The arrival of Rev. Leroy Cloud gave impetus to the construction of a new church at that location, dedicated on Easter Sunday of 1964. A giant step was taken in 1968 with the hiring of Kenneth Rankin to establish Fremont Christian School. With little funding, equipment or staff, the school opened in two months with 74 K-6 students. Within six years enrollment stood at about 600 students.

1976 marked the beginning of many milestones and great prosperity for First Assembly of God. Rev. Robert Goree had just become pastor, Fremont Christian School held its first graduation, and a large site was purchased at Paseo Padre Parkway and Thornton Ave. for a new church.

Leaders of the Newark and Fremont churches voted to merge under Pastor Goree, and in September 1981, after 40 years, they reunited. To accommodate both congregations, a new sanctuary was needed. When Fremont Unified School District put the former Norris School site up for sale, the First Assembly bid was successful. The Hansen property was sold to Templo Betania Assembly of God; the Newark and Paseo Padre properties were sold and a new 2,000 seat sanctuary at 4760 Thornton Ave. was dedicated September 8, 1985.

Now named Harbor Light, the church is led by Senior Pastor Terry Inman, assisted by seven Associate Pastors. Sunday morning attendance averages over 1,000. More than 80 "Connection Groups" meet throughout the week. Designed to bring people together in small common interest classes and activities, the program consists of a variety of offerings based on age and special interests or needs.

Fremont Christian School offers pre-school and a K-12 curriculum aligned to the California Content Standards. Under Superintendent Kenneth Rankin, a Facilities Master Plan was adopted in 2001. A new elementary building was completed in 2004 followed by biotechnology and physical science labs in 2009 as well as teacher housing and artificial turf on athletic fields. Athletics play an important role, and teams have garnered many championship trophies. Earlier this year, under the direction of Superintendent Dr. Tricia Meyer, a new choral hall and secondary classroom building was dedicated.

Fine arts are an important component at all grade levels. Classroom music is part of the curriculum for grades K-12. Students may also participate in choir, handbell choir, band and musical theater productions. The High School Concert Choir, directed by Darryl Guzman, has performed at many well known venues including Carnegie Hall, Riverside Church and Lincoln Center in New York. The music and drama departments present major productions of Broadway musicals. Eagerly anticipated now is the 2012 presentation of Fiddler on the Roof.

A milestone for the school came in 2008 with its 40th Anniversary celebration. Former pastors, including the revered Pastor Goree, participated in a number of activities along with alumni from every graduating class. Another milestone - the church's recent 75th Anniversary - was commemorated by ceremonies held in the sanctuary. Honored guest was Dr. George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God. Angela Silveira, the little girl in the tent so many years ago and now the church's longest participating member, was presented with flowers.

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