Tuesday, December 01, 2015 • 12:11

Valley Center's first church still standing

February 12, 2014
When Nils Holmen first bought the run-down old building next to the Valley Center Cemetery on Miller Road, his first thought was to level it and start from scratch.

"I thought the place was such a disaster, structurally and in every other way," said Holmen. "I was going to tear it down and build another house." Between years of neglect, faulty plumbing and electrical systems, and blackened walls from a stove with no stovepipe, the building was hardly livable.

However, Holmen's neighbors soon told him about the historical significance of the building and changed his mind. He had just unknowingly purchased the first church in Valley Center, the Sherrard Chapel.

"It just dawned on me — I've got to save this thing somehow," said Holmen. Since taking ownership of the chapel in 1999, Holmen has restored the building to its former elegance and transformed this crucial piece of Valley Center history into a unique home for him and his family. "It's been here since 1885 and it's still hanging in there," said Holmen.

Reverend Joseph H. Sherrard, minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in Escondido, first moved to Valley Center around 1882 with his wife Hannah. He owned 500 acres of choice Bear Valley property at one point, some of which he donated for construction of a chapel. The first adobe bricks were laid in 1882, and the chapel was finally completed in 1885.

"Let us arise and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work." So goes a passage from Nehemiah 2:18, included in the dedication service of the Sherrard Chapel, held on Nov. 8, 1885. Even before construction of the church was completed, Valley Center residents would assemble for prayer meetings every Sunday at the site.

In a report written in 1983, Helen Cramer, a VC resident and one-time Valley Roadrunner writer, marvels at the original 1885 charter: "The roster of elders, stewards, and trustees on the charter reads like a roll call of Valley Center Pioneers," writes Cramer. "Some of those names, like Breadlove, Miller, and Cole are preserved today in Valley Center's oldest families, street names, and historical landmarks." The charter is preserved at the present-day Valley Center Community Church, which traces its roots back to the Sherrard Chapel.

Although the chapel is still standing, it has had its share of trials over the year. During construction in the winters of 1883 and 1884, heavy rains washed away some of the adobe walls on the south side, according to Bob Lerner, historian and spokesman for the Valley Center Historical Museum. The community soon installed wooden siding to preserve the walls, but disaster struck again in 1900 when the church's steeple was struck by lightning. Rev. C.S. Perry, who took over the church in 1898, made the necessary repairs to keep the building functional.

Rev. Sherrard also donated the property for the Valley Center Cemetery, where his wife was eventually laid to rest in 1893. Sherrard sold his land holdings in Valley Center soon after and moved to Los Angeles. After Sherrard's departure, a string of ministers worked to keep the chapel functioning until about 1910. It was converted into a private residence a few years later, and in 1932 a second story was added. Eventually the singleroom chapel was broken up into a living room, a bathroom, a study, and a bedroom, with a kitchen and den area added as well.

Over the last one hundred years, several families have lived in the one-time chapel, each contributing their own changes to the evolution of the space. The building eventually fell into disrepair, but after Nils Holmen bought the property and spent a year and a half repairing it, Valley Center's first church was returned to its former glory. "I completely redid the plumbing and the electrical and pretty much rebuilt the place because it was just a disaster when I took it over," said Holmen. "I redid everything inside cosmetically." Holmen also added a garage, a new driveway, extensive landscaping, and a picnic table built atop a tree stump.

The effect is an undeniably unique and historic home. Holmen has lived in the house for nearly 13 years now with his wife Sally and his daughter Savanna, and he has no plans of moving anytime soon. Most of all, it's the spectacular views of Valley Center and Palomar Mountain that continue to leave Holmen breathless.

"It's what I love about this place, and I'm sure it's why Rev. Sherrard picked it," said Holmen. "This is what he saw, and now I can appreciate why he picked this particular place to do this." Holmen says he's finished making major changes because he doesn't want to further alter the character of the building. A history major in college, he hopes to preserve this amazing piece of our past for generations to come. "Most of the time I think that I'm just the caretaker," said Holmen. "I'm saving this for future generations, because obviously I'm not going to outlive this house. It's going to outlive me I'm sure."

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