Easter Sunrise Service
A Tradition Since 1917
MT. HELIX EASTER SERVICES SINCE 1917
The Century-long Tradition of Mt. Helix Easter
Celebrations Is Traced Back to La Mesa’s Mt. Nebo
By: James D. Newland, La Mesa Historical Society
Once again, as they have since 1917, intrepid pilgrims will trek to Mt. Helix to experience the annual Easter morning sunrise. Today’s safe and modern shuttle buses would have been most welcome to those who climbed the steep, narrow road/trail that Mt. Helix owner Ed Fletcher provided for reaching the summit back in 1917. However the local Easter morning ritual did not start with that first Mt. Helix service in 1917. As early as 1914, and likely earlier, La Mesa’s Easter pilgrims climbed up a different mount. The shorter, but still dramatic and panoramic, hill directly west of downtown La Mesa—Mt. Nebo. Mt. Nebo was part of the 1908 Lookout Park subdivision. The tract featured a small park in the center of the circular Prospect Way on the lower, northern peak. This would be site of the initial La Mesa area Easter sunrise services. The impetus for inviting first La Mesa, and then all-comers, to Mt. Nebo, and later Mt. Helix, is associated with some of the first residents of this tract. Mr. Howard Worth, a San Diego clothing-store owner, and his civic-minded wife May French Worth along with some of their pioneering neighbors including Mr. J. E. McDonald (who some would later recall as the champion of the Mt Nebo Easter Services concept) proved key participants. Although some newspaper articles from 1915 and 1916 indicated that Easter morning sunrise pilgrimages may have occurred as early as 1911 or 1912, the earliest confirmed documentation of a formal, organized event is in 1914. On Easter morning April 12, 1914 two local Christian church youth organizations, The Epworth League and the Christian Endeavor Society held an Easter Morning Prayer and Praise Service on Mt. Nebo at 6:30am in place of their regular Sunday evening meetings. The fledgling event proved to be a success. In 1915 La Mesa’s Christian community made their Easter sunrise service an open invitation to all those wishing to attend. Shortly after daylight on Easter morning April 3, 1915 the pilgrimage to the top of the hill began. The La Mesa Scout of April 9, 1915 described the overall proceedings: Shortly after 6:15 the people formed the body around the pavilion upon which was placed a large cross. Notwithstanding the sky was overcast, a splendid view was had of the ocean, bay, mountains and valleys, adding to the impressiveness of the scene. The people joined heartily in the splendid service of song and prayer. The services surpassed in solemnity, impressiveness and beauty any ever held in this part of the state. La Mesa’s Mt. Nebo Easter Services were repeated again in 1916. Newspaper articles reported on the town’s hospitality, spiritual fervor of the participants and enlarged size of the year’s crowd. A highlight of the event being two hundred youngsters, all clad in white gowns, marching two by two up the road to the gaily-decorated Prospect Park pavilion. In 1917 however, La Mesa’s popular civic celebration was overshadowed by another significant event drawing worldwide attention that April—the United States’ entry into World War I. Only one short newspaper entry noted plans for a small procession up Mt. Nebo with no additional services or festivities that year. In the meantime key members of the San Diego Advertisers Club, a group of regional business boosters, had arranged for their own Easter sunrise outing on Col. Ed Fletcher’s larger Mt. Helix peak property. Although no contemporary accounts of the 1917 Mt Helix Easter sunrise outing were published, later recollections noted that somewhere between 150 and 300 Ad Club members, family and friends hiked up the rough road to the rocky peak where a bonfire had been lit to guide the sojourners in the pre-dawn Easter morning of April 8, 1917. Thus in March 1918 the media savvy Ad Club publicly announced, much to the surprise of La Mesa’s Christian community, a large-scale Easter Sunrise service on Mt. Helix. After meeting with the Ad Club event committee, the La Mesans cancelled their plans for continuing the Mt. Nebo event in lieu of the newer, well-funded and well publicized Mt. Helix Easter celebration. The Mt. Helix Easter Sunrise service of 1918 reportedly drew thousands, and with the Ad Club’s sponsorship, and support of local leaders such as Ed Fletcher, it continued to grow in the ensuing years. The success of those early years led San Diegan Mary Yawkey White and her brother Cyrus Yawkey to obtain the property and fund construction of Mt. Helix’s now world-famous Nature Theater to hold this annual event—as it has since its opening in 1925. As you enjoy this special centennial Easter Service also reflect on the inspirational young La Mesans, Mt. Nebo pioneer residents and community boosters who established the foundation for this long-standing community asset. *Based on author’s article originally published in La Mesa Patch in April 2011.
The 2023 Easter Sunrise Service will be conducted by College Avenue Baptist Church and marks the 106th gathering at the peak and the 98th since the historic amphitheater was dedicated in 1925.
Check back for details ti be posted closer to the date.
A bit of history:
While the celebrated amphitheater was finished and dedicated at Sunrise Easter Service in 1925, the first service was held at the top during WWI in 1917. Before the Yawkey and Fletcher families came together to make the amphitheater as we know it possible for the community, services were held in the naturally occurring dirt and rock bowl facing east. That same natural shape was used to construct the stone amphitheater that exists today graciously paid for by the Yawkey Family.
Mt. Helix Park is home to the second-longest-running Sunrise Easter Service in the US. The service is not only a historic celebration but one noted for its beauty and awe-inspiring backdrop as you face the rising sun and spectacular views.
The service is primarily sponsored by The Mt. Helix Park Foundation per the governing Trust that was established by the founding family, with the production and program by a local church from the community. We are thankful to all the churches, both of the past and those in the future, for donating their time, talent, and finances to help the nonprofit Mt. Helix Park Foundation provide the community with a special and unique annual event. They, along with our amazing donors and volunteers, make it possible to provide this free, inclusive, non-denominational, community event for all to enjoy.