In the 1940s, looking at the growing population in the eastern section of Albuquerque, the congregation at First Presbyterian Church, which had been organized in 1880, began to plan for the establishment of a new church to serve that area. The first step was the opening of a Sunday School, followed soon by a drive to raise funds for the purchase of two lots as a site for the prospective church. In 1945, First Church sponsored services for several months in borrowed quarters in the eastern heights area. Those who attended these services eventually petitioned the Presbytery for help with church organization.
World War II circumvented immediate action, but by 1947 the Presbytery had appointed a committee to undertake establishment of a new church and to search for its first pastor. The Rev. J. Elbert Nash came from Wyoming in response to the call and the first service for the new congregation was held in the Heights Community Center on February 8, 1948. A month later, on March 7th, Immanuel Church was formally organized with an initial 165 charter members, ending with 235 charter members on the rolls by Easter.
Noted New Mexico architect, the late John Gaw Meem, developed a southwestern Territorial style plan for the church to be built on land, at the corner of Carlisle and Silver, SE, that had been purchased in 1943 by the Men’s Bible Class of First Presbyterian Church for new church development. Immanuel members moved into the first unit of the building on April 22, 1950. A second unit with educational space was completed in 1951.
The church continued to grow and the need for additional space became a priority. The present large Sanctuary with educational space was built and dedicated in November 1956, completing John Gaw Meem’s original plans. The Sanctuary contains an impressive artistic feature, a chancel area hand carved in walnut by the late George Weidner, a long-time member of the church, using Meem designs. The church building is in the State Register of Cultural Properties, and was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in February 2011. The congregation continues the incredible stewardship of past parishioners who valued and maintained this historic space.
Immanuel’s first pipe organ was an historic Steere that had been installed in First Church in 1905. When Immanuel purchased a Casavant organ in 1965, the fine old pipe organ was passed on to La Mesa Presbyterian Church. The new organ was built by Casavant Freres, in Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec. It has 30 stops, 41 ranks of pipe, on 3 manuals and pedal, located in chambers east and west of the choir loft. The pipes number over 2,000.
In 1980, part of the small, original church Sanctuary, which had been used as a chapel since 1956, was rededicated as “Simms Chapel” in honor of the late Reverend J. Denton Simms, who served as associate pastor and associate pastor emeritus from 1949 until his death in 1979. The remainder of the original Sanctuary space is the Immanuel Parlor, a widely-used space for church and community meetings, Sunday morning Coffee Mingle, and receptions.
Over the years, Immanuel’s ministry of service has included, but not been limited to, the establishment of Albuquerque’s Meals on Wheels (1971), sponsorship of New Life Church (1973), a kindergarten-day school, and support of Dismas House, Project Share, Storehouse, Martineztown House of Neighborly Service, Habitat for Humanity, and Interfaith Hospitality Network. The congregation also provided an active Stephen Ministry program for several years, beginning in 1997.
From Immanuel’s beginning, music has had an important place. On the first Sunday of worship there was a Chancel Choir, and soon after youth and children’s choirs were organized. Also Immanuel had the first handbell choir in Albuquerque, and an active adult bell choir, using Whitechapel bells, regularly participates in Sunday worship. Because of the church’s central location and wonderful acoustics, the Sanctuary and Chapel are regularly used by community groups for concerts: Quintessence, de Profundis, Albuquerque Chamber Soloists, Canticum Novum, Chamber Music Albuquerque, Karlstrom Violin Studio, KHFM Peformance Live Series, New Mexico Gay Men’s Chorus, New Mexico Women’s Chorus, and Santa Fe Desert Chorale, among others.
The building is used by a wide variety of community groups for meeting space: Enchanted Lens Camera Club, Forest Service, Health Security for New Mexico, La Montanita Food Co-op, Narcotics Anonymous, NM Bee Keepers, NM Volunteers for the Outdoors, Upper Rio FM Society, and Zia Hospice. This is but a partial list.
Immanuel’s charter membership in 1948 was 276. After a steady period of growth, there were 2,900 members in 1968. Since that time, Immanuel’s membership has declined to about 190. We have seen the sanctuary, initially filled with predominately young families and children, later fill with baby boomers and their families, only to then fill with many aged and wise members. But a rebirth is in progress, with young families with children blending in with older members, forming a spectrum of faces of all ages.
For over sixty years Immanuel has been a living body of Christ in Albuquerque. It has been a place of fellowship, outreach, and service; a place where the Word of God has been read and studied; and where the Holy Spirit has moved us into a deeper love relationship with each other. Now, well into our second fifty years, our church is experiencing a rebirth, a renewal, a refocusing. We continually seek God’s will for us, as we embrace the challenges and opportunities afforded by the twenty-first century. We see greater possibilities in the years ahead to manifest more completely the fruits of the Spirit, most importantly that of love.