Blessings outweigh challenges for historic church

Tourists on a horse-drawn carriage tour hear a spiel about Grace UMC's ties to noted hotelier and railroad magnate Henry Flagler, who is responsible for the building's striking architecture. Photos by Tony DeSantis.

July 27, 2015

ST. AUGUSTINE – The trolley tours slow down when they round the corner of Cordova and Carrera streets as the guides point to historic Grace UMC. After all, the impressive church bears a resemblance to other Spanish Renaissance-style buildings built by Gilded Age entrepreneur Henry Flagler. 

Inside the church office, clergy couple David and Carolyn Williamson chuckle at some of the amusing anecdotes they hear about Flagler and his quest to acquire the land owned by the Olivet Methodist Episcopal Church, forerunner of Grace UMC. 

“Our office is situated where we can hear the trolley tours,” says Carolyn, who co-pastors Grace UMC with her husband. “The funny thing is each trolley has a different version of the story.” 

The truth is that Henry Flagler was known for his determination and persistence. In 1884, he wanted to build a hotel, The Alcazar, on a lot then occupied by the Olivet church, across King Street from his opulent Hotel Ponce de Leon, which is now Flagler College. The Alcazar now houses the Lightner Museum.

“The (Olivet) church trustees weren’t sure they wanted to sell,” says Richard Backlund, Grace UMC historian and archivist. “They had struggled for years to raise funds for a building and had just opened their doors.”

Interior shot of the Grace UMC sanctuary
Grace UMC, St. Augustine, shares its unique heritage with passing tourists and welcomes visitors as often as possible. Church leaders say the blessings of conducting ministry in an historic setting and international tourist destination outweigh the challenges.  

Flagler offered to build a new church and parsonage in exchange for the Olivet land and building. Initially, the answer was no. But Flagler — a devout Presbyterian — was determined to show his offer was serious. He occasionally attended Olivet services, where he dropped three $500 checks into the collection plates during 1885-86.

“That was enough to convince them to vote on it,” Backlund says. “Samuel T. Payne was the pastor at the time, and he convinced trustees to make the trade. It was still close, though, with a 3-to-2 vote.” 

Flagler commissioned the architects responsible for his hotels, John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, to design the new church in the same style as his hotels. 

Construction began in 1886 and was completed in late 1887, at a cost of approximately $85,000 to Flagler. Grace UMC was dedicated in January 1888.

The Flagler story piques the interest of tourists, many of whom hop off the trolley tours to see the church’s interior with its Tiffany-style windows and massive crystal chandelier, also donated by Flagler. Grace UMC volunteers welcome guests to tour the sanctuary most weekdays from 1 to 3 p.m.

“We get to meet people from all over the U.S. and different countries,” Carolyn says. “I’m glad they feel welcome and comfortable to come in, even with their trolley stickers.” 

The Williamsons have been at Grace only since July 2014 and admit they still have a lot to learn about the landmark’s impressive history. For today’s Methodists, the church bears another distinction: It was the church home of the late Wilma E. Davis, who in 1929 became the first woman ordained as an elder in the St. Johns River Conference of the Methodist Church, an antecedent of the Florida Conference. 

Carolyn says that leading a congregation in a popular tourist area has its blessings and curses.   

“Parking is always a challenge,” she explains. “Flagler College recently opened a lot to us on Sunday mornings, which helps.”

The Grace UMC parking lot is rented out when church events aren’t scheduled, and that makes money for the church. The pastors say that’s a blessing because upkeep on the historic building is enormous.

“It’s about $150,000 a year for maintenance,” Carolyn says. “A new roof two years ago was over $300,000. The Historical Preservation Society expects us to keep up.”

The blessings of the historic location, however, outweigh the challenges. The couple says Flagler College students bring an exciting vibe to the congregation that has been predominantly retirees. The church offers free dinners on Thursdays to students and is working with the Jacksonville-based Campus to City Wesley Foundation to establish a ministry on the Flagler campus. 

“This is not only a beautiful setting, but we also have a rich faith history. That memory is the driving goal to become a multi-generational church,” David says. “Our setting allows us to do that.”

– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer from Lady Lake.

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