CLEARWATER — Sunday will likely be an emotional day for worshipers at Bethel Presbyterian Church, a historic house of worship nestled on 2 tree-covered acres just off Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
On the one hand, parishioners will celebrate their 125th anniversary as a church.
On the other, they will sing their last hymns in that sanctuary. Say their final amens. Pass the plate one last time.
Built in 1886, the tiny church served many of the area's founding families. But Sunday, after bagpipes wail and a bit of history is shared over a light lunch, the church will be officially dissolved by the Tampa Bay Presbytery and the property will be put up for sale.
Elsie Ruble, 85, has been piping out sacred tunes at the church organ for nine years. She's played for the Methodists and the Baptists in the past, but these folks, she said, were it.
"I'm really sad," she said. "It's like losing your family."
The land with views of Tampa Bay was appraised at $775,000. No value was added for the charming white church or adjacent fellowship hall, since it's uncertain whether or not they will be useful to a new owner.
Parishioners just pray it's not Armageddon for the house of God. They'd like to see another church buy it.
Or see it turned into a wedding chapel.
"We're not sure if that would work because today's brides want beach weddings," said the Rev. Dr. Jack Alwood, 58, who has led the congregation since he came as a supply pastor on a hot August day in 1997.
"Of course, here they wouldn't have to worry about rain or bugs or sand," he said.
A 1911 forest fire took down the original timber church built by English architect Herbert Osborne. It was nestled amid pine trees on 2 acres donated by the church's first pastor, the Rev. William Brown.
The lumber, transported from Pensacola by schooner, had been bought with a few hundred dollars, "a considerable amount of money" wrote Brown in a passage from the church's 100th anniversary booklet.
In the same book, Nancy McMullen Meador stated, "It was loved by the whole community and people came from far and near walking, riding horseback, in oxcart, mules and wagons."
Black-bonneted Sunday school teachers wearing long dark silk skirts were referred to as "swamp angels" by the children. That's because from a distance, they looked as though they were floating in air as they traversed along pine pathways, their feet obscured by brush.
Back then, Bethel was the center of community life — until tragedy struck.
A father and son had started a nearby brush fire to burn a spot for a garden. When the wind carried flames to a nearby pine tree, it started a flash fire that traveled to the church. The structure was consumed before a bucket brigade could be formed. Only the Bible, organ and a few pews survived.
Services were held in a store until 1916, when a new building was erected on the same site. This time it was built with cement stone formed to create a rough-hewn texture.
The picturesque church with a bell tower survived a 1921 hurricane but closed in 1931 as young people left the area and others transferred to a nearby church in Safety Harbor. It opened again years later after a restoration was organized. In 1956, the current Fellowship Hall was built.
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On a recent day, sunlight streamed into the sanctuary through seven large stained glass windows, casting a golden radiance on padded wooden pews.
Timeworn scents from hymnals, Bibles and antique hardwoods filled the air.
It's a cozy sanctuary that seats about 110, but the soaring white ceiling makes it feel more vast. In years past, extra chairs were brought in as couples sealed their vows, families baptized their infants and the community mourned its dead.
But lately, the aging congregation has dwindled to about a dozen in the summer, two dozen in the winter. Recently, six members died and a few others moved away.
To save money, services were cut to every other Sunday during the muggy months of 2008 and 2009.
"We've had some very lean times and had been surviving on gifts and bequests, but the last couple of years have nibbled those away," said Judson Smith, 78, who serves as an elder and treasurer.
A few who gathered in the sanctuary this week to talk about their church said it was a place where God's presence was always felt. The warm, close-knit congregation felt comfortable in the deep-rooted ways of the past.
"We like the old hymns and the traditional services," said Ralph Baker, 84, who goes by "Doc." But the retired dentist admitted it's been hard to compete with the larger churches offering contemporary music, high-tech productions and programs for all ages.
The difficult discussions about closing began in the fall. The congregation decided to hang on until the winter worshipers arrived and could help celebrate the 125th anniversary.
The news stunned Barbara Parsons of Ontario, Canada, who winters in Clearwater and has been a member for 26 years.
"It breaks my heart," she said. "There is just something very special about this church. I actually feel more at home here than I do at the one in Canada."
Judson Smith's wife Beverly, 77, worries about losing her church family as they seek new places to worship.
"We know we won't all be in the same church again," she said.