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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 jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

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