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Gulfport church had 19 regular worshipers. Sunday’s service was its last.

“It’s still my home,” one longtime member said. “But this is it.”
Congregants attend the last church service at Gulfport Presbyterian Church on Sunday, April 24, 2022. The church was forced to close to due to declining membership — there are currently only 19 regular congregants, mainly older adults.
Congregants attend the last church service at Gulfport Presbyterian Church on Sunday, April 24, 2022. The church was forced to close to due to declining membership — there are currently only 19 regular congregants, mainly older adults. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published Apr. 26|Updated Apr. 26

Half a century ago, Yvonne Johnson came to Gulfport to build a home with her husband. To her surprise, she ended up helping build a church.

“This became my home,” the 93-year-old said while seated in the foyer of Gulfport Presbyterian Church on Sunday.

That morning, there was no trace of the spare Bibles, the crockpots or the unused tins of decaffeinated coffee that littered the hallway earlier that week. The debris of 75 years’ worth of Sundays had been cleared out just in time.

The church was clean and welcoming: the same refreshments — coffee, pink and white cookies, granola bars — greeting attendees in the back of the chapel, just like always.

Except this time, as Johnson approached the lectern, steadied by her walker, about 50 people looked back at her from the pews. Light from the stained-glass windows glinted across their faces. Some had driven from as far as Orlando.

“If we had this many people every Sunday, we wouldn’t be closing,” she said with a warm, mischievous smile. Gulfport Presbyterian Church’s last service was underway.

One of the oldest religious institutions in the city, its membership had dwindled to just 19 at the time of its closing.

The church joins a swath of places of worship across the United States that have shuttered as attendance shrinks and fewer young people participate in organized religion, increasingly identifying as spiritual but not religious.

Gulfport Presbyterian Church tried several strategies over the years to recruit and retain younger members, including an invitation to allow worshipers to bring their pets.
Gulfport Presbyterian Church tried several strategies over the years to recruit and retain younger members, including an invitation to allow worshipers to bring their pets. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

“When we lost the youth, we never got them back,” said Johnson, the church’s longest-standing member. “As older members died, they didn’t get replaced.”

The service moved forward as the Rev. Micki Robinson, 66, the church’s longtime pastor prior to her retirement last year, played a lilting piece on her honey-colored harp.

She still remembers the days when she’d showcase the harp at downtown Gulfport’s First Friday Art Walks, trying to invite new members.

“I’d play just so people knew we existed,” Robinson said. “But the community changed and the world changed. People walked in and they saw old people — they didn’t realize how young they were in attitude.”

The church tried other recruitment strategies over the years, including “Who Let The Dogs In” services that allowed attendees to bring their pets.

The Sunflower Private School, an elementary school that rents out a portion of the building and now is attempting to purchase the property, began as a Hail Mary to get more young children back into the congregation, Johnson said.

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“But the families already had their own churches,” she said.

“There is a time for everything,” Marsha Rydberg read from the book of Ecclesiastes. “A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot… a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away.”

Over the years, Gulfport Presbyterian provided disaster relief in hurricanes, aided farmworkers in the fields and put on at least one performance of Jesus Christ Superstar.

For Theresa McLean, 71, it was an oasis in the worst moments of adolescence.

“I wasn’t popular in high school,” McLean said in an aside to Bob Ponder, 72, the church’s newest member as of December. “I was in the youth group here, and that got me through.”

“Church back then, it was a family,” Ponder said.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, it was amazing,” McLean’s brother, Jim Johnson, 75, chimed in wistfully.

Youth membership began to shrink in the 1970s, Gulfport Presbyterian members recall.

As they aged, entering careers and having children of their own, they didn’t come back, pursuing the wave of “contemporary” churches that attracted young adults or abandoning the faith entirely. Overall membership suffered, in a slow drip that finally became untenable last year.

“You can’t have a church without money and people,” Johnson said. The church voted to close its doors in September.

Still, some members will find a way to remain in community together. Several said they planned to meet up to try Lakeview Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg next week.

In a pew toward the back, Kiki Kremer, 58, wiped her eyes throughout the service.

Yvonne Johnson, 93, hugs Kiki Kremer, 58, following the last church service at Gulfport Presbyterian Church on Sunday, April 24, 2022. "It’s been an honor to be part of this congregation," Kremer said.
Yvonne Johnson, 93, hugs Kiki Kremer, 58, following the last church service at Gulfport Presbyterian Church on Sunday, April 24, 2022. "It’s been an honor to be part of this congregation," Kremer said. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

“I lost four siblings over the last few years,” she said. “The people in this church — they would call me and call me to check in, always. So it’s been an honor to be part of this congregation.”

The church’s Sunday school teacher for 30 years, Kremer sat next to her four remaining pupils, a quartet of siblings that attended with their great-grandmother.

One of them, a girl with almond eyes and an open face, donned a sparkly silver crown for the occasion. At 12, Nevaeh Wallace is the church’s youngest member.

Nevaeh Wallace, 12
Nevaeh Wallace, 12 [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

“If there were more kids, it would be better,” she said. “Not a lot of my friends go to church at all. There’s only like three of them that do.”

Rev. William Cowfer stepped up to the lectern to deliver Gulfport Presbyterian Church’s final sermon.

“When Jesus descended, the disciples’ work was not done — it was beginning,” Cowfer said. “Though we have mixed emotions about not being able to continue here as a congregation, the congregation that was here all these years is scattered throughout the world.

“They’re teaching in schools. They’re doctoring. They’re rearing children and grandchildren,” he added. “So we can echo the words of Mary: I have seen the Lord.”


The Rev. William Cowfer delivers the last homily at Gulfport Presbyterian Church on Sunday, April 24, 2022. After so many years, he said, the church's congregation has sent ripples across the world.
The Rev. William Cowfer delivers the last homily at Gulfport Presbyterian Church on Sunday, April 24, 2022. After so many years, he said, the church's congregation has sent ripples across the world. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

The reverend closed his message. Communion began as the pianist played Here, There and Everywhere by The Beatles. Gulfport Presbyterian’s flock shuffled through the pews one last time.

After, the remaining members lingered — staying a little too long, eating one too many refreshments, like any good church service makes you do.

Throughout it all, Johnson remained practical, composed, grateful. She hopes the church will be remembered by its mission statement: To live by faith and be known by love.

“It’s still my home,” she said. “I’m ready to come back next Sunday. But this is it.”

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