125 years ago, Point Washington United Methodist church was a miracle waiting to happen
On July 20 and 21, the church will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a "day on the holy grounds" from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the church, 1290 N. County Hwy. 395 in Santa Rosa Beach.
The Stephens Center will be set up as an exhibit hall, with a great variety of memorabilia. There will be games for children during the morning, and Deep South Bluegrass will be on site with music to set the festive mood. The United Methodist Men will provide a light lunch and at 1 p.m. singing and storytelling begins in the sanctuary.
On Sunday, July 21, Bishop Paul Leeland will be guest speaker during the 10 a.m. service in the Family Life Center. A potluck luncheon will follow on the grounds.
“ ‘Old home week’ should be fun, deeply meaningful and memorable for all of us," current pastor Spencer Turnipseed told The Sun. "So, spread the good tidings and let's have a great crowd and a great time! It will be a terrific way to signify the last 125 years and begin the next 125."
Building a church
The congregation began meeting in the schoolhouse in 1887, and in 1888 the group asked the presiding elder of the District to provide a minister for Point Washington.
A map from 1888 shows Point Washington in Washington County. PWUMC historian Brenda Rees told The Sun, “When Point Washington left Walton County in 1825 to be part of Washington County until 1913, what is now known as Destin went with it. South Walton, including Point Washington, and Destin returned to Walton County in 1913. Then, Okaloosa County was founded in 1915 and took Destin."
Rev. John Wesley moved to the Point and was not only the first pastor, he was also the fourth. He was the regular Sunday preacher while the appointed pastor, G.N. Winslet, came over for a night service on second Thursdays.
Rees told The Sun that the land for the church was donated by General William Miller and his wife Maria in 1893.
Miller, a soldier, attorney, timberman and politician, served as a general in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. He led reserve troops of the state of Florida and won one of the South's last victories of the war at the Battle of Natural Bridge.
Born in Ithaca, N.Y., Miller was also a veteran of the Mexican-American War, and was awarded by the government for his service with 40 acres of land in Florida.
Members of the first church contributed their materials and time to the building. The lumber was all local and milled at the Strickland and Wesley sawmills. Wesley continued to serve the church until his death in 1901.
Services have continued every Sunday since with no interruption. Rev. Wesley's son, Stephen, kept faith alive by ringing the bell and leading services every Sunday until his death in 1943.
With about 30 pastors since 1888, Harry Houseman, pastor from 1988 to 2000, wrote about those formative years in a history of the church.
On June 12, 1988, 24 people showed up that first Sunday which was listed as the 100th anniversary and “homecoming.” Only four of the worshippers returned the following Sunday, but attendance was up to 34, Houseman wrote.
"A story circulated that there was room on the pews for each congregant to lay down and stretch out. Oh well … shouldn’t folks be comfortable at church? The time was a-coming that we couldn’t put them in with shoe horns!"
Being a tourist and snowbird community, attendance would vary from service to service, and many of its members had service jobs and worked Sundays.
"We have many retirees whose families are scattered across the fruited plain, but with their pledge to attend every time they could, we began to fill the pews."
After Houseman’s arrival, membership reached 47 by the end of 1988, and by 1994 was up to 116. In 1997, the rolls grew to 196 and more than 270 by 2000, with all bills paid and no indebtedness. Today, membership stands at 507.
Houseman believed “that the congregation, like the church, was a splendid example of Christian beauty firmly witnessing to the extended community, the conference and the world — following [Methodism founder] John Wesley’s great proclamation, 'The world is my parish.' There is a wonderful excitement in the air about the church and its mission. The people are positive, motivated, and faithful.”
Point Washington built a parsonage in 1981 and was now a “station” church. Pastor Mike Columbo, the first occupant, experimented with different service times and he was the one who started the beach service at Seaside. The Community Church in Santa Rosa Beach later took on that responsibility.
It was in 1990 that the church bought the lot east of the church at the urging of Van Ness Butler who said he saw growth on the horizon. Four men pledged the security of the loan and within a year it was paid off.
"We had many a work day on the lot for we had to take it 'as is," Houseman wrote in his history. "That means all the junk on it was ours! The brick pilings became the sidewalk in front of the parsonage. About 20 old windows were tossed only to find out years later people who do crafts wanted them enough to pay for them."
After an enormous bonfire to get rid of debris left by the house that stood on the property, church members cleared the land by hand.
"Mary Norris, Jonnye Butler, and Helen Strickland were a trio of weed whacking women with machete, hoe, and wrist power," Houseman wrote.
Also, 1990 was the year the church began using the acronym PWUMC.
"The snowbirds wanted a shorter name to write on their checks. That acronym allowed more space for the amounts. They were good contributors."
Originally known as the Point Washington Church, in 1894 it became First Methodist Episcopal Church, South, better known as ME Church South.
In 1939 it became First Methodist Church after the union of the three major Methodist bodies, and in 1968 became First United Methodist Church when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church united.
Officially it is still First United Methodist Church, Point Washington, Florida, with PWUMC as its name of endearment.
Renovation of the little historic church house began on Jan. 4, 1997, and all activities moved to The Stephens Center. The FamilyLife Centerwas built in 2005 and is used for contemporary services each week and the preschool.
The people are proud of the “early American gothic” architecture of their church, according to Houseman.
"We like the hype that it is the most photographed church on CR 395. It’s not unusual to see artists behind their easels, with oils, watercolors or charcoal, capturing on their medium the beauty of this house of God."
The "little white church" is an active full time parish of the Alabama-West Florida Conference … thanks in part to all the faithful who have gone on before.