LAKE CITY--When the Methodist Church first arrived in Lake City, its congregation was made up of ladies wearing their finest cotton patterned dresses with leg o’ mutton sleeves and men sporting beaver-skin top hats.
“The Methodist presence in Lake City dates back to the 1820s,” said Rev. Jeff Tate, pastor of First UMC, Lake City. “We started out as a conditional church (that) wasn’t officially organized until 1840.”
More than 400 current members of the congregation, along with former pastors, ministers and longtime friends, turned out April 26 for the church’s 175th anniversary celebration. The Lake City congregation is among two churches that will be recognized at Annual Conference 2015 for 175 years of ministry; Cherry Lake UMC in Madison County also is celebrating that milestone.
More than 35 churches in the Florida Conference will be recognized for milestone anniversaries, ranging from 25 years up, at 1:30 p.m. Friday, June 12, during the meeting to be held at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.
Paul F. Wengert, a member of First UMC, Lake City, did extensive research into the church’s history for the anniversary celebration and dug up some interesting facts.
From 1829 until 1840, the community’s Methodists were served by traveling preachers. It wasn’t until 1852 that Lake City welcomed its first permanent Methodist preacher. He spread the gospel from a humble wooden church building on a piece of property on South Marion Street that the church purchased for $75.
Over the years, that little wooden structure was replaced by a larger church flanked by educational buildings and meeting rooms. The first parsonage was added on Hernando Street in 1891.
Many of these original structures were destroyed when fire ripped through the church complex in 1945 and again in 1967. However, fire failed to discourage the community’s faithful Methodists. They rebuilt and opened the current First UMC complex at 973 S. Marion St. in 1970.
It’s not the church’s longevity that has made it such an important institution in the historic Florida city that is now home to about 13,000 people, Tate said.
“Sure, our longevity in the community is a factor,” he said. “But it’s our heart toward the community that makes this church so important to Lake City.”
Among its first outreach efforts was the establishment of its prekindergarten in 1965.
“Our pre-K program was established before pre-K was in vogue, and it has been a vital part of the community ever since,” said Tate, noting that 4,500 boys and girls have been educated at the Lake City church during the past 50 years.
Two years after starting the prekindergarten program, the Women of the Society of Christian Services founded the Happy House Day Care Center to provide much-needed care for the children of the community’s working and single parents.
That same year, Peggy Dyson, the church’s minister of Christian education, was instrumental in forming the Columbia County Literacy Council to train tutors to teach illiterate adults to read.
“The church has always been known for its willingness to respond to whatever needs arise in the community,” said Taft, who has led the church for nine years.
In 1982, under the direction of Rev. Carl Schafer, Judge Julian Collins and Jack King, First UMC embarked on its most important outreach to date: the establishment of the Christian Service Center, originally located at Columbia Avenue and Veterans Street and now located at 441 NW Washington St.
Today the center is staffed by nearly 90 volunteers from more than 35 churches around Lake City who provide a variety of services for residents with emergency needs, including assistance with food, clothing, household goods, furniture, medication, transportation, finances and spiritual counseling.
“It’s our congregation that makes this church so special,” Taft said. “It doesn’t matter whether they are families that have attended the church for generations or families that just arrived; there’s always been a willingness to reach out to those in need.”
– D'Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in the Brandon area.