ISTACHATTA — The folks at New Hope United Methodist Church take their homecomings seriously. Today, members will be making preparations for the celebration of the church's 175th anniversary on Oct. 25 by cleaning the church's graveyard next door.
"This little community cemetery has been there since the 1850s," said lay leader Carol MacDonald. "We clean headstones and cut down dead trees that are hanging over the cemetery. We have a crew come in and cut the grass, and then we go in and rake up leaves and clean that up."
The workers will also pressure wash the small white church on the outside, as well as the fellowship hall, and wash the windows.
"We check the flower beds and replant fall flowers so it looks nice and clean," she said.
MacDonald, who is also the church publicist, said she is expecting more than 100 people at the homecoming.
"I expect out of our membership there will be about 50 and the rest will be former members who have moved away or relatives of deceased members or family that are spread out all over the place," she said. "They all manage to get back for homecoming."
Teri Lowman-Moore, 53, has been attending the homecomings since she was a little girl. Several of her relatives belonged to the church, including her uncle, Sim Lowman, a former Hernando County sheriff.
She remembers playing there as a child.
"I grew up in Tampa, and we always came up for homecoming," she said. "For some reason, I remember the coffee. They always made strong coffee by the cement tables across the street. And boiled peanuts.
"There was an outhouse. I did try to avoid that growing up."
Lowman-Moore joined the church when she moved to Brooksville about seven years ago. Her uncle and his wife, her parents and her grandparents are at rest in the graveyard.
"I still love homecoming," she said. "It's a good time. You see a lot of people that you might only see once a year."
Those attending the homecoming or church services will find a caring congregation, said Trudy Edwards, 69, who has been attending since the early 1990s.
"We were basically strangers," Edwards said about her and her daughter's early visits. "My husband had to work on Sundays back then, so just my daughter and I attended. They would just go out of their way to be friendly and helpful and loving. And it's been that way ever since."
Edwards' husband, Clyde, joined when his work schedule changed. Their daughter, Eleanor Carter, was married there, and their granddaughter, Taylor Carter, was baptized there.
Edith Piazza, 74, said she always looks forward to homecoming because people come from all over the country. She joined the church about 12 years ago because it reminded her of the ones she attended as a child.
"It just feels like those churches of my childhood — small, rural churches with wood walls, old pews and windows. And I love having the graveyard right next door, where you can see it out the window."
Piazza said the fact that the church's pastor, Gary Clark, conducts the worship service at 9 a.m. each Sunday and then travels to Lake Lindsey United Methodist Church to conduct another service at 11 a.m. reminds her of the old-time circuit-riding preachers.
"I'm like a circuit preacher but without the horse," said Clark, who came out of retirement to pastor the two churches.
Clark has been the pastor at New Hope since last November and was the guest speaker for the 2008 homecoming celebration.
At this year's event, he will speak on traditions and "the fact that we've inherited this treasure that we are responsible for, as well as enjoying," he said.
"I'm sure there will be a lot of stories told there," Clark said. "I would hope that we would have people return and reconnect to their roots, remember their stories of their childhood and the past, and celebrate it. And hopefully find energy for their faith in the future because of it."