ARIPEKA — The "friendly little church by the sea" lives up to its reputation.
"You're a visitor the first time; after that you're considered home folks," said Pastor Joe Simms in his soft, Southern accent. "That's just the spirit of the church. Not only friendship but 'familyship.' "
Aripeka Baptist Church celebrates its 100th anniversary as a congregation this weekend. The small white church sits tucked away in a fishing village on the west coast of Pasco County, north of Hudson. And while many things have changed over the years, one thing has remained constant: The old-fashioned church is the hub of the close-knit community. But people now come from all over to share in its charm.
"You don't choose your family, but your spiritual family you do choose, and we really are a family," said Simms, who is in his sixth year at the church. "We worship together and have outreach in the community, doing what's right, and right is according to the word of God."
Louise Geiger, the unofficial historian of Aripeka, jokes that she fills that role because no one else wants to. "I've been a member longer than anyone else," she said. "I went to church there before I was born."
Her grandfather James Kolb, or Papa Kolb, donated the land and helped build the original church on the front of the lot. That building is now the fellowship hall. A fire a couple years later destroyed the church, so he rebuilt it exactly like the one that burned, Geiger said. She has pictures and documents she's collected over the years, which she keeps at her house, just off the main road.
For now, the Aripeka folks run their own post office, and everyone in town knows each other. The church attracts people from the surrounding communities, including Hernando Beach, Spring Hill, and even Port Richey.
But the "old-timers" serve as the matriarchs of the town and the church.
"It's taken on different personalities," Geiger said. It was once a plain building with just a front door. Then they closed in the porch and added another porch with a walkway, and then added the steeple.
The church sees bigger crowds now. While they used to have just 14 members, they now have more than 100.
Her mother and aunt both went there until they died, as well as her aunt's family and her seven children, who are still in the community.
"I don't miss a service, period, unless I'm sick," Geiger said, including Wednesday prayer meetings, Sunday school, and preaching Sunday morning and evening.
Geiger's cousin Verna Sloan just celebrated her 70th birthday and boasts that she also hasn't missed a service.
"I told everybody I was born on Sunday and that's probably the only day I missed going to church," she said. "I've been going there all my life. It's a very, very friendly church and everybody helps each other. I've been to some bigger churches that were not as friendly."
When Sloan found out she had cancer, she learned just how much the church and the community mean to her. She has been getting chemotherapy treatments and now wears a hat. On Sundays after church she goes with her friends for lunch, then they take walks along the marsh, go shopping, and come back for services that night.
"That's when it's nice to have a small church because they all rally around you," she said. "I love those people. … They're my second family."
Some of her family members moved away, but they all retired back to Aripeka. She has seven siblings in the area. Geiger is her "double first cousin" — two brothers married two sisters.
"A lot of the town people will come and then just keep coming," Sloan said. "People out of Spring Hill like to come to a small church." And the close-knit community welcomes them.
Sloan explains one of the practical reasons Aripeka hasn't changed over the years:
You cannot build on marsh grass. And since the Gulf of Mexico is on one side, and marsh grass is on the other, that doesn't leave much room for development. "There's very little, if anything, left to sell here," she said.
Carol White, 63, recalls the days of outhouses and no electricity. "There's a lot of changes," said White, who is Sloan's sister. "A lot of people have come and gone," but "it's still a small country church."
She remembers walking to church and Sunday school as a kid. Her children and grandchildren also went there.
"Everybody knows you and everybody goes to the church," she said. "It's what we've always known and what we'll always know."
Pastor Simms is hoping for a big turnout this weekend, including regulars and newcomers to Aripeka Baptist Church who want to cross the bridge for some Southern hospitality and old-Florida charm. "As I tell everyone, we still ring the bell for Sunday school. It's a throwback to the way things used to be," he said. "We believe the old ways are the best ways."
Contact Mindy Rubenstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.