Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Tampa's oldest church, First United Methodist, will close

TAMPA — This was where her grandfather preached. Where she walked down the aisle. Where her father's funeral service filled every pew.

"And when they sang, 'O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,' " said Caroline Roberts, 76, "I tell you the roof came up."

First United Methodist, Tampa's oldest downtown church, has been the longtime spiritual home to Roberts and countless others since it began in 1846 at Fort Brooke, as the Church-by-the-Sea.

Many of the city's most prominent political and business names worshiped here. Members helped launch some of Tampa's best-known service organizations, from Metropolitan Ministries to Stepping Stone.

But it's one Sunday away from its final service. Earlier this month, delegates of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to close the Florida Avenue church.

Conference officials blame low attendance, a drop in annual giving and declining outreach. They say they haven't decided what they plan to do with the property other than find a way to keep a ministry presence in downtown Tampa.

Like so many institutions in American cities, the church struggled as people moved to the suburbs. Thirty-five years ago, the 450-seat sanctuary filled up fast. Now, Sunday attendance averages around 40 — most of them older residents for whom the trip to Sunday worship is a long-established routine.

But church members say their hearts are broken over a loss that can't be calculated and tallied up.

"There may be few, but they feel a connection, something they can't find anywhere else," said Hilda Royal, a retired schoolteacher who began attending one of the church's Ybor City missions when she was a girl. "I don't know if I'll find another place that fits me."

• • •

In 1846, the Rev. J.C. Ley and 17 other pioneers organized a Methodist Church, in a primitive structure built of driftwood, at Fort Brooke.

Two years later, the Methodists began building Tampa's first official church building, known as the Little White Church.

People pitched in money to help pay for the project. That included Confederate Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson, who gave five dollars in gold, according to the History of the First United Methodist Church.

First United built a new church in 1890. It started several missions and spawned other churches. In 1968, it opened the current, expanded building at the same spot on N Florida Avenue.

At that time, the future was bright. It had even established Methodist Place, an affordable housing project for seniors, across the street.

Then came the societal changes, including the move to the suburbs and the rise of nondenominational churches.

"It's survived all this time," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at Tampa Bay History Center. "It's like a lot of urban churches, where the congregations just move away."

About five years ago, the Methodist conference began taking a closer look at how the Tampa church was doing, said spokeswoman Gretchen Hastings.

"The decision to close any local church is very painful," she said.

But some church members say that review was revealed to them only late last year — just as their nonprofit arm had sold Methodist Place for $4.6 million to a group hoping to redevelop the neighborhood.

They were shocked and devastated, and planned to put up a fight. They turned in a plan in which they laid out new endeavors the church would take on. But this past April, they learned the plan had not been accepted.

"They're not interested in us surviving," said Dale Roberts, 81, Caroline's husband. "They're interested in the money."

Hastings said that all assets, including the housing property that was sold, belonged to the denomination all along.

• • •

One recent weekday morning, the Robertses walked down the worn, red-carpeted aisles of the sanctuary.

"The Sessums sit there, the Culps over there," said Caroline, who said she sits everywhere. "The Lowes over there, the Dybles right here. Rubye Yent, she sits back there."

(Terrell Sessums is a former speaker of the state House of Representatives; Faye Culp is a former state representative.)

Dale Roberts, a deacon who has keys to the sanctuary, pointed out where the lilies go each Easter, where the choir sits. He opened a hymnal; he patted the organ.

"When they put this in," he said, "it was the best organ in Tampa."

Then they walked over to the chapel that the church also owns. Members use it for small weddings and funerals. Ethiopian immigrants have been using it for their worship services in recent years and hung their own colorful, Christian-themed paintings.

Outside, behind the bushes, homeless people had left cardboard boxes and bags of old clothes where they'd been sleeping. "We don't run them off," said Caroline. "They're children of God, too."

The Robertses pointed at a nearby site planned for affordable housing units. Could they have been new members?

Caroline said it doesn't matter now. For the first time in more than 50 years, they don't know where they'll be on Sundays. They don't know where their funerals will be held. They don't know how they'll feel about driving past a home where they no longer have the keys.

"I don't know where I'm going," she said.

Reach Jodie Tillman at or (813) 226-3374.

Tampa's oldest church, First United Methodist, will close 06/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 10:41pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. In advertising, marketing diversity needs a boost in Tampa Bay, nationally


    TAMPA — Trimeka Benjamin was focused on a career in broadcast journalism when she entered Bethune-Cookman University.

    From left, Swim Digital marketing owner Trimeka Benjamin discusses the broad lack of diversity in advertising and marketing with 22 Squared copywriter Luke Sokolewicz, University of Tampa advertising/PR professor Jennifer Whelihan, Rumbo creative director George Zwierko and Nancy Vaughn of the White Book Agency. The group recently met at The Bunker in Ybor City.
  2. Kushner to testify before two intelligence committees


    WASHINGTON— President Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner is set to make a second appearance on Capitol Hill — he will speak with the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, one day after he is scheduled to speak with Senate Intelligence Committee investigators behind closed doors.

    White House senior adviser Jared Kushner is scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. [Associated Press]
  3. Rays blow lead in ninth, lose in 10 to Rangers (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Rays manager Kevin Cash liked the way Alex Cobb was competing Friday night. He liked the way the hard contact made by the Rangers batters went away after the second or third inning. So as the game headed toward the ninth, there was no doubt in Cash's mind that sending Cobb back to the mound was …

    Rays starter Alex Cobb can hardly believe what just happened as he leaves the game in the ninth after allowing a leadoff double then a tying two-run homer to the Rangers’ Shin-Soo Choo.
  4. Exhumation of Dalí's remains finds his mustache still intact


    FIGUERES, Spain — Forensic experts in Spain have removed hair, nails and two long bones from Salvador Dalí's embalmed remains to aid a court-ordered paternity test that may enable a woman who says she is the surrealist artist's daughter to claim part of Dalí's vast estate.

    Salvador Dal? died in 1989 leaving vast estate.
  5. Sessions discussed Trump campaign-related matters with Russian ambassador, U.S. intelligence intercepts show


    WASHINGTON — Russia's ambassador to Washington told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race, contrary to public assertions by the embattled attorney general, current and former U.S. …

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation after meetings with an ambassador were revealed.