‘The church that bees built’: La Jolla Lutheran celebrates 75 years

La Jolla Lutheran Church at 7111 La Jolla Blvd. is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2020. Services originally were held in a local mortuary.

With a history steeped in friendship and honey, La Jolla Lutheran Church began as a modest organization on May 20, 1945, and marked its 75th anniversary with a special online service over the weekend.

Church members originally met in a local mortuary for services and broke ground on the current location at 7111 La Jolla Blvd. in 1947, according to Gudrun Armentrout, who serves the church council as evangelism elder and has been a parish member since 2015.

The church, designed in the Spanish Mission style by architect William Stone and originally marked by a golden cross on its steeple, was first led by pastor Leonard Johnson. As it grew, Johnson looked for help in financing a second building.

A large contribution came from Johnson’s friends in Wisconsin, beekeepers and international honey traders Carl and Hazel Aeppler. The church honored the Aepplers’ gift with a plaque in the sanctuary that declares La Jolla Lutheran “the church that bees built.”

Then-pastor Leonard Johnson reads a blessing during the groundbreaking for La Jolla Lutheran Church's current location in 1947.

“For a while, new members received a small pot of honey” as a nod to the church’s early benefactors, said church council president Susan Mason.

The gold cross has been replaced with a painted white one, and the church is currently served by pastor Mark Dahle, who has led the small congregation of about 65 members since 1994.

Diane Owens, who has been a church member since 1981 and is now its financial secretary and an outreach committee member, said La Jolla Lutheran is “a beautiful church; it’s very spiritual inside. We’re a small congregation; we all know each other. That’s the best part: We help each other, we call each other. It’s like having a family.”

Mason, a La Jolla Lutheran parishioner since 1988, agreed that its members are the “best thing about the church.” She said “we have a lovely building and grounds, a great pastor … but it’s really the people that make the experience.”

Years ago she moved to east San Diego County but was still making the 35-minute commute to the church before coronavirus-related closures led to weekly services being held online.

Charlie Kearns, the church treasurer whose parents joined in the early 1960s before he was born in 1969, said the church is special for its community programs, such as its participation in the Interfaith Shelter Network, a San Diego-wide “collaborative effort with other places of worship … that works like a rotational homeless shelter.”

Being involved with projects like that is “not only a blessing to the people we’re helping but a blessing to us,” Kearns said. “It’s been so wonderful being a part of that; it teaches me to be more thankful.”

The church council originally planned to mark the 75th anniversary with a large gathering to “best honor the people in the past and the present,” Kearns said.

But as the statewide shelter-in-place protocols took hold, “our plans took a drastic change,” Owens said. “We are going to do a bigger celebration when we can all be together, hug each other, shake each other’s hands and show love for each other.”

Under the new plan, La Jolla Lutheran held its normal Sunday service online via Zoom on May 17, with parishioners “invited to wear party hats,” Mason said. There also was a special version of the customary post-service coffee hour, in which members stay online to chat.

Owens said she’s looking forward to the larger in-person commemoration. “We may celebrate all the things we’ve missed, like Easter, the church anniversary, Mother’s Day, when we have the freedom to enjoy it.”