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    Little church with big heart is 115 years old

    Tucked away off Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard is a quaint church with a small congregation. It burned in 1911 but was resurrected.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- The pretty, old, English-style church where the "swamp angels" taught Sunday school turned 115 years old this month.

    Nearly 60 guests showed up at little Bethel Presbyterian Church -- nestled among pine trees on 2 acres in the Bayview area of Clearwater -- to celebrate the milestone with guest speakers and a catered brunch from Banquet Masters on Feb. 11.

    It was an excellent turnout, considering the church has only 40 full-time members, according to clerk of session and church spokeswoman Ruth Van Gemert, who is trying to get the church listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "It's a friendly church," she said. "It's the little church with the big heart."

    Gemert and her husband, Hank, discovered Bethel Presbyterian when they retired and moved from New York to an apartment near the church three years ago. At first, they didn't believe it was a "live" church because it was so quiet all the time. But one Sunday morning, they heard the bell ringing, calling them to a service.

    They've been members ever since.

    Almost everyone in the congregation is familiar with the church's rich history dating from 1887, when it was built by English architect Herbert Osborne, a house guest of founding pastor William Brown, who donated 2 acres for the project.

    The congregation raised nearly $400 for lumber from a mill in Pensacola. It was transported to Bayview by schooner.

    Brown, who had preached in a log schoolhouse nearby before the church rose, went on to be its pastor until he became blind, and had to be carried to the pulpit in an armchair.

    Brown's wife, sister and other ministers' wives used to teach Sunday school at the church. They walked to classes on a path through the woods, holding their Bibles and wearing black silk hats and long black silk skirts.

    As they walked, their skirts would "rustle to the crunch of the dead pine needles as their feet pattered along," according to a passage in a church anniversary booklet. From far away, with their feet obscured by brush, they appeared to float. The children called them "swamp angels."

    In 1891, Brown retired, "ready to depart in peace," according to the booklet.

    His mother, Mary Moore, had endured a tragic childhood, and her story was written in a small book, the Captives of Abb's Valley. According to the book, Moore was captured by Shawnee Indians, who killed her entire family and eventually sold her for a few gallons of rum.

    Like Mary Moore's life, Bethel Presbyterian "was doomed to rise and fall," the booklet says.

    A low point came in 1911, when the pine woods and palmettos near the church caught fire, sending burning brush onto the church's wood shingles. Local men, Thurlow Sansbury, Will Knight and Perry Bishop, saw the blaze and rescued three pews, an organ and a Bible. But the structure burned to the ground.

    The congregation worshiped at Mrs. Jim McMullen's store until a cement stone church was built in 1916 where the old church stood.

    Although fire couldn't stop the church, dwindling membership and stiff competition from a Presbyterian church in Safety Harbor almost did. Bethel Presbyterian was forced to close in 1931, and they would remain sealed for nine years until a restoration project brought the church back to life.

    Bethel Presbyterian has about a dozen pews that can seat six people apiece -- if they're slim. There is only one service each week -- 10:30 a.m. Sundays. No other services are needed.

    Its tiny congregation is made up entirely of elderly people, none of whom live in Bayview.

    "It's an intimate group to preach to, because they're all within hearing distance," said the pastor, the Rev. Jack Alwood, who is also a chaplain with Hernando-Pasco Hospice.

    When asked whether there are any younger people, Van Gemert's eyes brighten. Once in a while, a young couple from Tarpon Springs come to a service and bring their children, she said.

    According to Alwood, the rest of the time the congregation's "son" and "grandchildren" are him and his sons, Ben, 11, the church's bell ringer, Andrew, 18, and Josh, who is away at college. Their "granddaughter" is Claudia Alwood, 47, Alwood's wife.

    Alwood, 48, said the church is set back about 500 feet from busy Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and usually goes unnoticed by drivers. But once in a while, the quaint church with the rose-colored windows catches the eyes of young couples. Sometimes, they stop and ask whether they can be married there.

    Of course they can.

    "They say, "Oh, it reminds me of the church I came from,"' Alwood said. "It's like a chapel."

    During the past few years, at least a dozen people have been married in the church. But they never return for services, even though Alwood always extends an invitation.

    In a room at the church, under protective glass, is the Bible saved from the terrible fire of 1911.

    The circa 1875 Bible was purchased by pupils of the Sunday school run by the "swamp angels."

    Their names, written on the fly leaf, can still be seen today.

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