Members of four churches marched through the ballroom of the Buena Vista Palace Resort in Orlando in June during the Annual Conference proudly waving banners commemorating their respective anniversaries.
During the past 150 or more years, these churches often thrived and sometimes struggled; but members always kept coming back.
|Pictured above is one of the charter trustees of Mt. Pleasant UMC Edward Plummer and his wife Julia, circa 1885. Plummer was also alderman (city commissioner) in Gainesville in 1889.|
The Rev. Geraldine McClellan is the third generation of her family associated with Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church in Gainesville's historic African-American community. She has been pastor twice: from 1988 to 2000 and—after an eight-year stint as North Central District superintendent—from 2008 to present. Her grandfather, the Rev. Thomas W. Williams, pastored the church in the 1920s and 30s, and her uncle, the Rev. John Williams, served as North Central District superintendent in the 1960s.
“It's like family. It's like being home,” she said of the church. “I think Granddaddy, along with all of the other pastors and pioneers of that congregation, would look back over the years and say, 'Well done, good and faithful servants,'” echoing Matthew 25:23. She added that her grandfather might also say of the church's 150th anniversary, “'Wow!'”
“Mount Pleasant UMC is known as the community's church. It does not belong to us,” McClellan said. “It belongs to the community. It's been that way for years” since the merger that created The United Methodist Church in 1968.
Mount Pleasant was actively involved in the civil rights movement. Members have conducted sit-ins and continue to be known for providing ministries for “the least of these,” she said, including folks who are homeless or suffer from food and housing insecurity.
“You name it; we've been there,” McClellan said of the church's activism and altruism. “There is still a lot of work to do, in spite of all that has been done, because racism is still alive and well, even in the community in which the church sits.
“Even in the midst of it all, God has smiled on us and continues to use us to minister to the masses.”
St. Catherine UMC
Looking for a history of St. Catherine UMC in St. Catherine, Florida, near Bushnell? Bernard Dew is the person to call. Dew, 72, who sits on the church board of trustees, has been a member since birth. His mother, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great grandparents also were members.
“We did different things (vocationally), but we just stayed here,” he said of his family.
The 45-member church originally was called the Matchett Church, Dew said, noting that his great-great grandmother's maiden name was Matchett.
Technically, Dew said, members don't know exactly when the church was founded. Membership records go back to 1867, but he says it may be a few years older. The designated 150-year anniversary is “certainly a milestone that we are very proud of,” Dew said, adding that they had not yet made any plans for a celebration.
There's really no need. The church recognizes its founding with a homecoming celebration each year, on the last Sunday in January. They move the service from 9 to 11 a.m. and have a dinner and social time.
“We don't have fireworks or anything like that,” Dew deadpanned.
The congregation, Dew said proudly, increases in number during the winter. Some winter residents have been coming from nearby communities Ridge Manor and Leesburg for more than 25 years.
|Bud Shipbaugh, a World War II veteran, has offered prayer to those attending historic Bronson UMC for four decades. Shipbaugh is 98 years old.|
Traditions are as easy to find at Bronson United Methodist Church as locating Bud Shipbaugh, 98, in a pew Sunday morning. Shipbaugh, a World War II veteran, led the church in prayer for several decades until about a year ago.
Fifth Sunday luncheons are a favorite tradition at the church, which also is commemorating its 150th anniversary this year.
Bronson UMC is pastored by the Rev. Mark Stiles, who said his congregants' focus on the Lord's Prayer—which he says some churches have eschewed in an effort to attract younger members—“is amazing.
That's one thing that they will never, ever remove from a service.”
Stiles, who recently entered his second year as pastor at Bronson, says many changes have been made at the church over time. But another thing that will never change is members' support of the Florida United Methodist Children's Home in Enterprise near Daytona Beach. The 75 Bronson UMC members of the church were described by Stiles as very loyal.
Small churches continue to survive, but it's not easy to thrive.
Stiles, who also pastors First United Methodist Church in Archer, said “the things that worked years ago” don't work as well anymore. “Change is so hard. In order to grow, nowadays, you have to keep up with what's going on out there and what people are looking for.”
Nadine Robbins joined First United Methodist Church in Bartow as a child in 1951, when her family moved from Stuart. She left in 1963 to get married and returned in 1994 to be close to her parents. Both Robbins and her mother, Frances Waters, have served as historians at the church, which is commemorating its 150th anniversary this year as well.
Robbins said the anniversary evokes good feelings.
“Some of the current members of the church have these family ties, you know, that date back to the very beginning of our church,” she said. Adele Durrance, 99, and Elsa Huff share ties to the founding Wilson family. Meromay Davis, in her 90s, has ties to the founding Hooker family.
“The people in our church, their roots go back to the very beginning of Bartow,” Robbins said. It was founded in 1851 and incorporated in 1882.
The church is planning an anniversary party for Saturday, November 11, from 10 a.m.to noon. Among the items on display could be things currently stored in a cabinet in the church library, including a “prospect quilt” made by ladies from Homeland, a nearby community. Church leaders are asking people to bring church-related mementos from home to put on display for the celebration, even those belonging to neighbors who previously attended the church.
When members recently held an event to renew wedding vows, they displayed newspaper articles and photographs of the first wedding held in the “new church.”
The “new church”—the current church—was built in 1907, Robbins said proudly.
--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.