Our Presbytery’s Heritage

Every year, Presbyterians celebrate Heritage Sunday, a day to reflect upon and learn more about the long and rich history of the Presbyterian church in America. Our presbytery shares in this heritage. According to PCUSA statistics, our presbytery has 17 congregations that were founded in the 1800s! There are a few congregations that were organized in the United Presbyterian Church or under a different name during the late 1800s so the list of historical churches is no doubt more than seventeen! Needless to say, our presbytery has a rich heritage with many stories to share!

We are pleased to share a few of their stories as a small part of Heritage Sunday recognition. Click on the captions below for profiles of six of our early churches.

Here is brief information on some of our other historic churches. We’ll be adding more photos and stories as they are shared with us (email marigrace@staugpres.org).

First Presbyterian Church of Palatka was founded in February, 1856 with eight charter members. The congregation first began meeting in a log building that had been used by Federal troops as a powder magazine (a storage building for ammunition). They met in this location until 1879, except for a period of time during the war in 1862 when the congregation “was obliged to flee into the country for safety.” In 1879, Robert Lennox Kennedy, a New York businessman and winter visitor gave $10,000 to build a new sanctuary in memory of his wife. This building was completed in 1881, with the lot deeded to Mr. Kennedy who leased it to the congregation for 200 years at $1.00 per year. Unfortunately this building was gutted during the 1884 Great Fire of Palatka. Mr. Kennedy helped fund the rebuilding of the church and this is the present sanctuary which has been in use since 1885. A new organ was added and dedicated in 1907, and later moved to a special alcove specially build to house it. Additions were made throughout the years, and a recent restoration was completed.

First Presbyterian Church of Fernandina Beach was founded in May 1858. The first sanctuary is the oldest church structure on Amelia Island. A few short years after the sanctuary was built, worship was interrupted when members of the congregation took refuge during the Civil War to the relative safety of the interior of the state. During the war, the sanctuary was used to house a primary school run by the Freedman’s Bureau. A young Union officer named Major W.B.C. Duryee, who was stationed in Fernandina during the occupation, saved the church bell from being melted down for armament during the metal scarce years of the War Between the States. First Presbyterian Church has a long history of community service. One early example of this was a small hospice, located behind the sanctuary. For many years before and after the turn of the century, members of the congregation cared for sick and destitute sailors, or anyone in need. For the church’s 160th Anniversary Celebration, First Fernandina Beach member Amy Wilking superimposed an 1886 photo of the old sanctuary on a current photo of the church.

Bethlehem Presbyterian Church was founded in 1866 in what was then known as Wacahoota, about eight miles south of its current location in Archer. The sanctuary is the oldest building in continuous operation as a church in Alachua County, and in the presbytery. The organizing pastor was Rev. William McCormick, who organized the Kanapaha Presbyterian Church in 1857. Inside the church, the pews are original and made of single pieces of solid pine, the vaulted ceiling and the floorboards are exquisite. Pictured below are some of the early images of the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church and the original manse.

First Presbyterian Church of Starke was founded in December, 1884 with 23 charter members. Many were families who relocated from northern states to Starke to work in the citrus industry. The first sanctuary was constructed on what is now Cherry Street and dedicated in December, 1886. In July, 1978 the sanctuary was moved to Call Street, and a fellowship hall and educational buildings were added to its current site.

Branford Presbyterian Church was founded in 1885 or 1886, with the first charter members (reported as ten men and some women) meeting in the schoolhouse, which was the lowest floor of the Masonic building. There were no church buildings in town at the time and they quickly organized to make plans for a building which was completed in 1888. In the spring of 1889 the new church was host to the Suwannee County Sunday School Convention (pictured below). The September 1896 hurricane blew the church down and the church was rebuilt. Branford Presbyterian Church was the site of a combined Union Sunday School until the other churches decided to open Sunday Schools for their members around 1912. The church was often without a pastor, with laymen and other visiting pastors in the pulpit.

Suwanee County Sunday School Convention, Spring 1889

Weirsdale Presbyterian Church was founded in 1891. A small group of pioneers met at the South Lake Weir Schoolhouse and initially began constructing a church under Episcopal leadership in the mid-1880’s, but the building contractor abandoned the construction. This small group raised funds and took over the unfinished church which had un-cushioned, folding seating until pews arrived in the 1950s. The church campus has expanded over the years as the congregation grew.

Heritage Sunday always falls on the Sunday closest to May 21, the opening date of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1789. Use the resources on the Presbyterian Historical Society website to plan a celebration for your congregation, download free bulletin inserts, and learn more about Presbyterian history.