PLANT CITY — An empty paper towel box sat on the front steps of the office at First Presbyterian Church.
On it, a note:
Please return the church record book in this box/No questions asked. Thank you.
Inside, the church's pastor and some of its oldest members sat in red velvet armchairs in front of a fireplace and commiserated over 70 years of history — lost when a thief broke in a week ago and stole one of the church's red leather-bound registries.
For 125 years, church members have meticulously recorded the highs and lows of congregants' lives.
Baptisms. Marriages. Deaths. The book contained all the records since about 1940.
Joe Merrin's baptism was in that book. The day he became a member of the church at age 9, someone logged it in. There was an entry for the day his father died in a car accident in 1954 and the year his wife joined the church in 1969.
"To us these records are so important," said Merrin, 69, whose great-grandfather started Plant City's first newspaper and was one of the founding members of the church. "This has to do not only with what went on in our church but what went on in our town."
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First Presbyterian, a large brick church with a preschool, fellowship hall, mission house and church office, sits on a full city block in the middle of Plant City's historic district — just blocks from an old-fashioned downtown that looks like a turn-of-the-century movie set.
The town, population 33,162, was incorporated in a 49-1 vote in 1885, the same year the church was founded. At one point, the church's membership included the mayor, fire chief and police chief.
Next month, the church, which has about 185 members and its original mahogany pews, is celebrating its 125th anniversary.
A week ago Sunday, the Rev. David Delph arrived at the church office to find the window in the accounting room broken. Furniture was overturned. Desk drawers were ajar.
The church had been broken into twice before in the past two years, though nothing much was taken. And in the mid 1980s, a thief broke in and stole stereo equipment and set the church on fire.
This time, the thieves bypassed the computers and the stereo equipment. They took the 50-pound safe containing one of the church's registries and the pastor's cell phone.
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Inside the office, Delph and some of the church leaders were talking about how they could reconstruct the history.
Records of some of the church's history exist. They just aren't together in a nice bound book. It would take too much time to put them together.
"I'm still hoping someone recognizes the significance of it to us," Delph said, "and helps it make its way back to us."
Moments later, Peggy Harris, a retired English teacher, arrived with a black notebook she'd been working on for the past week.
Her father had been pastor from 1968 to 1982. He had kept each of his sermons in the church bulletin, which listed the names of new members, baptisms, marriages, deaths.
In the week since she'd learned of the book's disappearance, she'd dug out the bulletins and spent hours transcribing the names into her notebook. So far, she'd recorded 248 members and another 100 baptisms.
It was something. Now if they could only find a record of what had happened before Harris' father arrived and after he retired.
Just then, the church secretary walked up with a red leather-bound book.
"Is this it?" Delph exclaimed.
"No," she said.
Someone had found it in a back room. But it was blank.
Harris, 60, shook her head. She hated to see the records gone. But at the same time, it made her think of the early Christian church, when hundreds of thousands of nameless people worked to spread the word of God.
It was nice to know the names of the people who'd passed through the church, she said, but what they had done with their time was more important.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.