Churches discover time capsules and hidden messages

Members of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in South Tampa never anticipated that a routine church renovation project would lead to a poignant connection to the past.

Church facilities director Richard Allen said he was overseeing the replacement of carpet in the church’s sanctuary over the summer when workers summoned him with a surprise. As the workers peeled away the old carpet, they discovered a series of hand-written prayers on the floor.

“It was amazing,” Allen said. “I was overcome with emotion when I started to read the prayers and came across those written by members who have gone on to become saints.”

Although he has served as the church’s facilities director for 10 years, he was unaware that before the carpeting was replaced 20 years ago, members of the congregation had taken the time to transcribe messages of faith and love to future members.

A surprise find at Hyde Park UMC led to prayers long hidden beneath sanctuary carpeting. This one written by a kindergarten class reads: "Thanks to all the big people that help make God's love real for all the little people."

“I probably spent an hour just reading the prayers before I went to tell the staff what we’d found,” he said. “They were so beautiful.”

Among the messages scrawled on the floor was one from then-associate pastor, the Rev. Magrey deVega, who now serves as senior pastor of the church.

“It was really powerful when I read the prayers written by longtime members David Smith and Sam Choate, who have gone on to God,” said Allen. “It made me feel closer to them and reminded me to acknowledge the life and service they gave to the church.”

But Allen said he was especially captivated with a prayer written by the woman he was to marry years later.

“I wasn’t a member of the church at the time,” said Allen. “I was raised Roman Catholic and then left the church. I had a lot of trials and tribulations, and my life had spun out of control. But the moment I stepped into this church, I knew I was home.”

At Hyde Park, Allen said he found not only faith but family as well.

“I met my wife here and now we have a beautiful 9-year-old daughter,” he said. “I went from someone who was lost to someone who found love and married in the church and found a calling as the facilities director where my job helps our missions to operate.”

As he read his future wife’s message on the floor, he felt as if she was speaking to him from the past.

“When I read what she wrote, her message of grace and peace, it was very powerful,” he said.

Unfortunately, not all of the prayers were legible.

“Glue from the carpet had ruined some of them but there were more than 20 prayers that were readable, and we took photos of them to share with future generations,” said Allen.

Due to time constraints, there was no time for current members to add their own prayers to the collection.

“We had only a three-day window to install the new carpet, so we didn’t have time to write our own,” said Allen. “But we were grateful to have this gift from the past.”

As members of Hyde Park UMC shared prayers from the distant past, the congregation of First United Methodist Church of Lake Wales was preparing to remember those responsible for their church’s formation 100 years ago.

“We were the third Protestant church established in Lake Wales,” said the Rev. Jeff Kantz, senior pastor of the church for 11 years. “Lake Wales was founded in 1914, two years before our church was formed, so our church and the community grew up together.”

Kantz recruited third-generation member Reid Hardman to organize the centennial celebration.

As Hardman began planning year-long activities culminating in the Oct. 9 centennial observance, he came upon a mystery.

The original church was built in 1922. But, in 1949, the congregation sold the building and constructed a new church at its current location on 5th Street. The original church was demolished in 1971.

“We’d written a history of the church for our 75th anniversary, which said a time capsule was laid in the foundation cornerstone of the new church when it was built in 1949,” Kantz said. “But nobody knew where the cornerstone was.”

Members of FUMC of Lake Wales are about to peruse the contents of two time capsules hidden beneath a stained glass window. From left are Reid Hardman, chairman of centennial celebrate; lay leader Joe Hart; Senior Pastor Jeff Kantz; and church council chairman John Berry.

A clue to the whereabouts of the time capsule was revealed when a longtime member died and his son discovered an old videotape as he was cleaning out his father’s home. The videotape, converted from an 8 mm film, was titled “Groundbreaking of New Church.”

As Hardman watched the film, he clearly saw members place a Bible in a box that was then placed in an opening beneath a distinctive cross-shaped stained-glass window.

“So, in May, we had people come in with hand-held heat sensors to find the box,” said Kantz. “They saw the outline of a box beneath the stained-glass window.” A member who does drywall and plaster work knocked a hole in the wall and, to everyone’s surprise, found two boxes – one from the 1949 congregation and another that was retrieved from the cornerstone of the education building constructed at the original church in 1922.

“Nothing we’d read ever said there were two boxes, so it was a big surprise,” said Kantz.

The congregation waited until a church potluck dinner in August to open the boxes so all members would be present.

“The boxes were soldered shut so we tried to open them with hammers and screwdrivers but made little progress,” Kantz said. “Fortunately, one of our members happened to have a cutting tool in his truck so we were finally able to open them.”

Perusing the contents was like stepping into a time machine, he said.

The 1949 box included a March 20, 1949, Tampa Tribune with the headline, “U.S. warns Soviet Union against underestimating strength of Western bloc nations.” There was also a copy of the Lake Wales News with a lead story about the high school basketball team heading to a state tournament and the Daily Highlander, featuring a story about Louisiana Sen. Allen Ellender performing a 12-hour, 20-minute filibuster. Also on the front page was a story about the laying of a cornerstone for First United Methodist Church.

“The second box had some water damage and the items inside were much more fragile,” Kantz said. “What I found most fascinating was a book of remembrance and a banner with stars representing all the people in the congregation who served in World War II.”

The box also included a list of members who contributed to the building fund. On the list was the name of current member, Sybil Hardman Catala, who was just 8 years old at the time.

She said she can’t imagine what contribution a little girl made to the building fund, but said she was thrilled to see her name listed.

The second time capsule found at Lake Wales included a book of remembrance and a banner with stars representing congregation members serving in World War II. There was also a 1949 Tampa Tribune.

Nell Thrift, archivist for the Florida United Methodist Heritage Center, said it’s common for churches to bury time capsules in their foundations for members to open 50 or 100 years later.

“I think there’s a natural tendency for people to want future generations to know about their struggles and triumphs,” said Thrift. “At the same time, people want a connection to their past.”

But, as the members of First United Methodist Church of Lake Wales discovered, time capsules might not be the most effective way to preserve the past.

“We don’t necessarily recommend time capsules for a number of reasons,” Thrift said.

“There’s always the danger of items getting water damage or crumbling from age. Plus, time capsules are only opened on anniversaries. We would give people the opportunity to reflect on their roots any time they wish.”

Thrift said the heritage center suggests that members of the conference create changing displays featuring the church history and use modern preservation methods to maintain the displays for future generations.

With that in mind, Kantz said his congregation is debating whether to bury their own time capsule during the centennial celebration.

“It’s a big question. What do we put back from the old time capsules and what do we add? Do we include a DVD or flash drive? Or will they both be obsolete in the future?” Kantz pondered.

Regardless of how it’s done, both Allen and Kantz agree it’s important to communicate with future generations.

“We need to send a message of hope to folks in the future, what faith in Christ has meant to us and what it should mean to them,” Kantz said. “If I were to include a statement in a time capsule, I’d say that, through all the changes in history, Jesus Christ is still the cornerstone and will lead them into their future.”

“To see where you’re going, you have to look behind you,” Allen said, adding that this is especially important for Christians.

“Our job is to prepare the way for those coming after us,” he said. “We have to leave our mark so future generations can move forward.”

--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in the Brandon area.

Editor’s Note: For churches looking to create their own time capsules, the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute offers excellent resources. This highly informative site presents construction tips, safe and unsafe materials to use, favorable conditions for storage and reference links. If you have interest, click here.

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