A HISTORY OF THE GULF BEACH PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Compiled by Aaron Z. Bessant, Ed Tomaszewski and Lorraine Gilmore
The Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church had its early beginnings as an outpost Sunday school, of the Wallace Memorial and St. Andrews Presbyterian Churches of Panama City. The first classes were held in the home of M.E. McCorquodale at Sunnyside Beach. Worship services were conducted each Sunday afternoon under the leadership of Rev. Clark Dean of Wallace Memorial and Dr. R. D. Daffin, Jr. of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.
World War II made it necessary to discontinue this outpost in 1944. Funds accumulated by the group were left in the hands of Wallace Memorial Church.In 1946, the war was over and the Beaches community was still in need of a church. The Home Missions Committee of the Presbytery of Florida presented the opportunities on the Beaches to the Wallace Memorial Church and asked that church to consider sponsoring an outpost chapel on the Beaches. The Wallace Memorial Church felt that their own building needs made it unwise for them to undertake such a project at that time. The Home Missions Committee then turned to the St. Andrews Church which also thought a Beaches project was too much for them to handle.
With no prospects of a local sponsoring congregation the idea of a Presbyterian Outpost on the Beaches lay dormant for two years.In 1948, after consulting with all the local Presbyterian ministers, Rev. J. A. McMurray, Pastor of the Wallace Memorial Presbyterian Church, forcefully presented the challenge of a Beaches church to the Home Missions Committee itself. The Committee, seizing on the challenge, instructed the Superintendent of the Home Missions of Florida Presbytery, Dr. Donald Swicord, to proceed with the formation of a church on the Beaches.
Dr. Swicord obtained the services of Mrs. Sara Lee Timmons, a Sunday school extension worker for the Synod of Florida, to survey the residents of the Beaches community to ascertain how many would be interested in helping support a Presbyterian church on the beaches. Mrs. Timmons not only made a survey, but through her efforts a Sunday school was organized in the living room of the Russell Cottages, owned by Mr. and Mrs. N. C. Russell. The first assembly of the Sunday school in the Russell Cottages was on October 10, 1948, with 60 persons present. The services were held “with a Coca-Cola box for a pulpit and such seating as could be gathered.”
Dr. Swicord and the Home Missions Committee were satisfied that a Presbyterian Church on the Beaches was needed and wanted. At the December 30, 1948 meeting of the Presbytery of Florida, the following motion was presented to the Presbytery by the Home Missions Committee and was passed by the Presbytery. Since the Home Missions Committee has approved the establishing of a church on the Beaches south of Panama City, the Presbytery therefore, instructs Evangelist Donald A. Swicord to proceed with all necessary steps in collecting and securing funds for the erection of a church edifice on property near the ”Y” that has been donated by Mr. Wallace Laird. The construction and expenditures for the same are to be under the direction of the perspective members on the beach and Mr. Swicord. We further instruct him as an Evangelist to proceed, if the way be clear, with the organization of a church to be known as Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church by the consent of the people concerned.
Dr. Swicord wasted no time. He, along with Mrs. Sara Timmons, began to seriously locate and recruit those who were willing to work toward a Beaches church. The Sunday school continued meeting at the Russell Cottages. While working on the Beaches church, Mrs. Timmons lived in a motel owned by Mr. and Mrs. J. M. McElvey. They were members of the Wallace Memorial Church in Panama City, but were very interested in the work on the beaches.
Another guest of the McElvey’s was John A. Trader, an architect working at the Panama City Ship Yards. The McElvey’s and Dr. Swicord persuaded Mr. Trader to design the church building. Mr. Trader gave much time, money and energy into designing and then overseeing the building of the church sanctuary and fellowship hall. A meeting of all persons interested in the building project was held in the Russell Cottages on April 1, 1949. A report given at the meeting showed $1,000 in cash and a number of pledges in the Building Fund. It was decided that construction would begin when the cash in the building fund totaled $2,500.
Plans were completed for the construction of a $16,000 sanctuary and fellowship hall and the foundation was laid on land donated by Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Laird by April 19. The Presbytery then approved a $6,000 loan and with donations from local businesses construction began.
A letter from Dr. Swicord states that “for the first time in the history of the beach, services were held on this spot in February when the foundations were poured, and we had no covering over us. Now we have a shelter, ample classrooms, insufficient seats, but plenty of space…” Those who were among the first to worship on this spot speak of boards placed across concrete blocks for the seats and a dirt floor.
Records do not show when the building was completed, but the group of worshipers was ready to be organized as a Presbyterian Church in early 1950. A petition for the organization of the Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church was presented to the Presbytery on May 3, 1950. After the reading of the testimonials which were received and the answering of questions asked in the Book of Church Order, the moderator pronounced and declared the church duly organized. Thirty members were listed as charter members of the church.
Dr. Swicord served as supply pastor of the Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church and as Superintendent of Home Missions for the Florida Presbytery until August 30, 1953, when he was installed as Pastor of the Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church. He resigned his position as Superintendent of Home Missions in October, 1955, and began as full time pastor of the church in January of 1956. In anticipation of Dr. Swicord becoming full time Pastor of the church, a manse was built in late 1955 and 1956 on a lot given by Mrs. Lynn Wells. The manse was about a mile west of the church on 8th Street. On December 20, 1957, Dr. Swicord sent this brief statement to the session of the church: “For the good of the church and in the interest of our Lord’s Kingdom I deem it best to submit my resignation. This resignation is to be acted on by the congregation on a date no later than January 20, 1958.” The congregation complied with Dr. Swicord’s request that the Presbytery dissolve the Pastoral relationship between Dr. Swicord and Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church effective April 8, 1958.
The Pulpit Nominating Committee did its work well and on December 28, 1958, the congregation voted to extend a call to the Reverend Robert G. Grigsby. Rev. Grigsby moved into the manse in January of 1959 and was installed as pastor of Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church on April 19, 1959. Rev. Grigsby came to the church at a time when morale was apparently very low and finances were even lower. Several of the long-time lay leaders resigned from positions in the church. But, Rev. Grigsby lovingly and patiently led the congregation back together and even when churches of other denominations were being formed on the Beaches, our membership steadily increased.
The church had been built on a parcel of land 200’ x 230’ given to the Presbytery of Florida by Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Laird. The property was deeded to the Presbytery by the congregation in 1955. In 1952, Mr. and Mrs. Laird gave the Presbytery of Florida a parcel of land 200’ x 470’ directly behind the church property and a parcel 100’ x 700’ joining the original parcel on the north. Dr. Swicord led the Presbytery in establishing a Presbytery Camp on the property behind and to the north of the church. This camp, named "Gulftreat," served the Presbytery of Florida until 1968 when it was sold to the Southeast Alabama Presbytery. Through the years, Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church and Gulf Treat had a close relationship. The church used part of the camp for Sunday school classes and the camp used the sanctuary for worship services. The ministers and the Session of the church aided in the care and supervision of the camp. In return, the Presbytery gave certain aid to the church.
In 1957, when the church was in a state of confusion, and when El Cento Beach development was opened and lots around the church were being sold, Mrs. N. C. Russell, realizing what it might mean to the church in the future to have the lots south of the church, bought four lots south of the church. In 1959, Mrs. Russell offered these four lots to the church for the amount still owed on them. During a congregational meeting on November 29, 1959, the congregation voted to purchase the four lots at a cost of $8,800 to be paid b to be paid by June 5, 1968. This was to be paid at a rate of $1,000 plus interest per year.
On June 23, 1963, the congregation concurred with Rev. Grigsby’s request that the Presbytery dissolve the Pastoral relationship between him and the church so that he might accept a call as pastor of the Bryson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama, Presbytery of North Alabama. A Pulpit Nominating Committee was elected and went to work. In the interim, the Rev. William A. Hearn, who was the Associate Pastor of the Wallace Memorial Church, was appointed as Moderator of the Session. Mr. Hearn’s name appears often in the records of this church as he has given his leadership to help in so many ways at various times of need.
On April 6, 1964, the Pulpit Nominating Committee nominated the Rev. Robert M. Lewis as pastor of Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church. Elected by acclimation, the call to Mr. Lewis was issued and he was installed on July 26, 1964.That same year, the congregation began to feel the need for more space for Sunday school classes and the Session instructed the Diaconate in October to appoint a “Ways and Means Committee” for new Sunday school rooms.A congregational meeting was conducted on October 1966 for the purpose of deciding whether to pursue plans to build an educational building or to try to secure the Gulftreat property and buildings from the Presbytery of Florida. There is no record of that meeting.
On December 4, 1966, the first female officer, Mrs. J. D. McCullagh, was elected Deaconess in the Class of 1969. Presbytery benevolent funds helped keep the church going in the early years. These funds helped supplement the minister’s salary, make manse payments, etc. The Presbytery’s minutes indicate that no Presbytery funds were budgeted for Gulf Beach Church after 1967. On November 19, 1967 the congregation concurred with the request of Rev. Lewis that the Presbytery of Florida dissolve the pastoral relationship between him and Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church so that he could accept a call to the Capital View Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Ga. A Pulpit Nominating Committee was elected and put to work. The Rev. William A. Hearn was again pressed into service as Moderator of the Session. Rev. William C. Sistar was called and installed as pastor on July 25, 1968. The mortgage on the four lots to the south of the church was satisfied in February of 1968 and as Rev. Sistar assumed his new pastorate, the church had begun construction of the new Sunday school wing south of the Fellowship Hall. In October of 1968 the congregation asked the Trustees to secure a loan of $12,000 to complete the new facilities. Completion of these new facilities was imperative since the Presbytery had just sold the Gulftreat Conference Center to the Presbytery of East Alabama; limiting church access to camp facilities. The new Sunday school rooms were first used in early 1969. When the Presbytery of Florida sold Gulf Treat to the Presbytery of East Alabama, it deeded the church a 100’ X 233’ lot north of the church property. This completed the acquisition of the property around the church buildings. A 25’ x 125’ strip of property was deeded back to the Presbytery of East Alabama to give them adequate access in and around the activities building of the camp. The Deacons struggled for years with a leak in the steeple of the church. After many failed efforts to stop the leak, it was determined that the steeple needed to be completely removed to solve the problem. In November of 1969, the Session accepted the gift of a new steeple from Mr. R. B. Coats in memory of his wife, Hattie. The new steeple solved the problem and completed the initial plans for the construction of the church, fellowship hall and Sunday school rooms.
On April 5, 1970, the congregation concurred with Rev. Sistar’s request that the Presbytery of Florida dissolve the pastoral relationship between him and Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church so that he might accept a call from the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sanford, Fl. The manse was in need of extensive repairs at the time. After much study and consideration the congregation instructed the officers to sell the manse and make arrangements for another one. The manse was sold and a new manse purchased at 227 Gabriel Street. The remaining indebtedness on the Sunday school wing was combined into the mortgage on the manse. The total indebtedness was $17,000.Even before the new manse was purchased the congregation issued a call to the Rev. Malcolm B. Koehler to be its next pastor. Rev. Koehler was installed on May 9, 1971. Rev. Koehler was honorably retired by the Florida Presbytery in 1973, but continued as Stated Supply until the congregation could call a new pastor. During this time, many repairs and additions were made to the church, including a new ceiling in the Fellowship Hall, as well as the purchase of carpeting, pew cushions, and a new organ.
The Rev. Ralph M. Evans accepted the call at Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church and began his work on February 1, 1974. The church established a Child Care Center and Pre-School, serving 30-35 children daily. New light fixtures, a gift from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Pensacola, were installed in the Fellowship Hall. The church has grown steadily over the years from the original 30 charter members to a membership of 150 in early 1974. This growth happened as a result of the leadership provided by our pastors, as well as that of lay persons within the church. This early history does not deal with any of the many persons who have provided that leadership – persons like O.C. Peterson, Anne Wells, Liz McCullough, the Johnson family, the Dickerts, the Thomases, the Westons, the Russells, and others. There are simply too many to do justice to all. But praise God for all of them and vow to continue to lead Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church in service to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
(Section 1 of our history was compiled by Aaron Z. Bessant in 1980)
The church history would not be complete without mentioning the men of the church. The men of the church worked in the fellowship hall to make toys for the Nursery and for distribution to other parties. The church’s finances would not permit various phases of church upkeep to be contracted out, so the men of the church took it upon themselves the duties of plumbers, painters, carpenters and landscapers. They also made repairs and improvements to the manse. Likewise, the women of the church put on various fund raising activities, including bazaars, bake sales, etc. The monies derived from these efforts were used for making payments on the manse note and for the paving of the church parking lot. From 1960 through the mid 1970’s, the church enjoyed a lively Sunday school program, as well as a youth choir. The Sunday school grew so much that they had to use some of the facilities of the Presbytery Campgrounds behind the church. The young peoples’ choir gave the congregation uplift with their two performances each year. The young people also had fundraising projects to finance some of the outings they enjoyed, such as boating and other activities. The church has been consistently involved in the community over the years by sponsoring Little League baseball teams, Boy Scouts and other activities.
The church decided to change to a unicameral form of administration, eliminating the position of Deacon, in the mid 1970’s. This necessitated realignment of various duties performed by the Deacons. Along with the church’s outreach program, many requests for assistance were received. A local restaurant and service station agreed to accept vouchers from the church for a hot meal and some gasoline. It was at this time that the Session agreed to help out by starting a Pastor’s Fund. Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church also agreed to grant the use of its facilities to Bay County on Aging for a congregate site for a food distribution program-- Meals on Wheels. After this program was discontinued, sometime in the mid 1980’s, Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church decided to start its own Food Pantry to help the needy within our community.
In 1980 the Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church celebrated its 30th anniversary with all former ministers taking part in the celebration. Church rolls continued at 140-150 members. During the early 1980’s we noticed that the attendance of visitors began to increase during the winter season. Talk soon began to surface of the need to hold two Sunday morning worship services. At about this time the church decided that a statement of purpose was needed. The following is what was agreed upon: “to prepare God’s people, in response to His grace, to proclaim and witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”
Rev. Ralph Evans initiated the process of seeking a call to another church in August of 1981. He submitted his letter to dissolve his pastoral relationship effective August 1982. The Rev. Frank Havlicek served as moderator during the pastoral search. The church owes a note of thanks to the many ministers who assisted our church during this period. After a diligent search, the committee presented Rev. Durl Odom for consideration. On January 7, 1983, Rev. Odom accepted the salary package presented. The congregation of Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church agreed with the search committee and accepted Rev. Odom as Pastor. Rev. Odom officially began his pastoral duties on February 15, 1983. Tom Douglass, an elder decided he wanted to take a bigger part in church services. In February of 1984, W. Tom Douglas began his duties as Associate pastor. After serving a short time in these duties, the church helped Mr. Douglas seek his calling as a Minister in the Presbyterian church. Mr. Douglas was a retired Baptist minister prior to joining Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church.
In 1984, as part of our outreach program, the church honored the request of St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church to use our facilities on Saturday for three months to hold services. In 1986, the congregation decided to go along with the Building Committee and enter into some renovations of the church. It was agreed that the minister’s office, administrative office, kitchen, sanctuary and fellowship Hall would be included in the renovations. Financing was accomplished by the congregation along with issuing bonds and securing a loan. The overwhelming support of the congregation made this project feasible. The total expenditures for these improvements were $196,000. During these renovations, the church held services in the Knox Presbyterian Campground Chapel.
In 1989, some problems developed between the congregation and Reverend Odom. Attendance and church funding decreased significantly. In August 1989, the congregation and Reverend Odom agreed to dissolve its relationship. The Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church paid the remaining six months of Reverend Odom’s salary plus vacation time. During this period the church went through a trying period. Faith, hope and prayers were the primary factors that helped the church overcome its situation. Several ministers filled the pulpit during this period until Reverend Virginia Cofer was appointed Interim Pastor. She served in this capacity until June of 1991. It was during this time that the Faith, Food and Fun program was initiated. Attendance soared during the winter months as this program continued. Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church was used as a safe haven after school and the children enjoyed various games while they waited for their parents to pick them up in the evening. Also during this time, the decision was made to sell the manse and give the new pastor a housing allowance.
The pastoral search committee submitted the name of Ken Churchill for consideration. The congregation of Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church voted to accept Dr. Churchill as pastor and he agreed to the terms of the salary package presented. The outreach program and the Food Pantry grew steadily under the leadership of Dr. Churchill. Our outreach program was recognized in the community and other churches began contributing food and monetary support to help supplement the ever-growing need.
(Section 2 of our history was compiled on By Ed Tomaszewski on June 20, 2000)
Dr. Ken Churchill was installed as Designated Pastor in June of 1991. The terms were for four (4) years; however, the congregation had the option to call Dr. Churchill to be the Regularly Installed Pastor in year three (3). Under Dr. Churchill’s leadership church membership and programs grew, especially missions and the Food Pantry. We also received several corporate and Presbyterian grants for the Food Pantry. Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church started a clothing room and gas and work shoe vouchers to help people looking for work. In 2000, the church qualified as a distribution center for Government surplus food. Active membership grew from 110 to 130 in 1994. In May of 1994 Dr. Churchill was called by the congregation of Gulf Beach Presbyterian to be the Regularly Installed Pastor. In August of 1995 Hurricane Opal caused significant roof and sign damage, most of which was covered by insurance. In the Spring of 1996 the Presbytery “2 cents a meal” program sent us $700 to replenish our Food Pantry due to the unemployment caused by Hurricane Opal. The Ladies Craft Bazaar and Gift Room was very active during this time and raised over $5,000 each year to pay down the mortgage. In 1996 we paid off the mortgage and bought a new organ with their donations.
In September of 1998 a coalition of charitable agencies (Catholic Charities, Grace Episcopal Church and the Salvation Army) offered to be more involved with the Food Pantry as a cooperative venture to provide additional services on the Beach. Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church worked with these agencies to form a charity called Beach Care Services. In 1999 we entered into a three (3) year lease with a Preschool to use our Sunday school rooms to provide income and much needed day care on the beach. The Food Pantry was relocated near the entrance of the sanctuary to provide a safer and more convenient location. Our missions continued to grow in 2000 as we raised money to build a Habitat for Humanity House and AMVET made donations of work clothes to our clothes closet.
On May 3, 2003 Dr. Ken Churchill requested his relationship as Installed Pastor be dissolved so he could retire and be near his grandchildren. Said request was granted on May 31, 2003. From June 2003 through September 2004, Reverend Bert Tuggle served as Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church part-time Interim Pastor. In 2003, the Presbytery of Sheppard and Lapsley of Alabama wanted to sell their Gulftreat Property and offered it to us. We were advised by Harvey Jenkins that the Presbytery could approve this if we wanted to make the purchase. We contracted to have first right of refusal. In August of 2004, we agreed to buy Gulftreat and lease it back to Sheppard and Lapsley for three (3) years so they could continue to use it until their new camp was built.
Jim Stansbury was called to be our Regular Installed Pastor in September of 2004. He had finished his education and training to be a minister but was not yet ordained. He was ordained in Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church. Hurricane Katrina forced evacuations in Louisiana and Mississippi in August of 2005. A session meeting was called to discuss providing shelter to help the evacuees. With the permission of Sheppard and Lapsley, the Gulftreat property was utilized for this purpose. For several weeks Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church provided food, shelter and clothing, as well as setting up a computer center to help the evacuees reconnect and get information.
During 2007 and 2008, renovations of the Gulftreat property were done as funds allowed. In 2008, Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church decided to start a Christian pre-School at Gulftreat. A Director was hired and the school was started in August of that year. Since renovations were not yet complete, the initial classes were started in the Sunday school wing of the church.
(Section 3 was compiled by Lorraine Gilmore in October of 2013)
The decision was made to begin the school by offering classes for pre-kindergarten, ages 1-4. The school struggled from the beginning and was closed after 15 months in 2009. In hindsight, the lack of a detailed business plan was more than likely the primary reason the school did not succeed. This endeavor resulted in serious financial losses for Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church.
A number of fundraisers were conducted in 2011 and 2012, and in conjunction with some very generous donations from our congregation, were used to complete the renovations and upgrades to our kitchen in the Gulftreat Fellowship Hall. These improvements provided a commercial kitchen for our church.
In 2011, by a vote of the majority of Presbyteries, the ordination standards and the form of government of our denomination were changed. Reverend Stansbury and some members of GBPC did not agree with these changes. Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church was faced with the decision of staying within the denomination or becoming a congregation within another Presbyterian denomination. After much discussion within the congregation, Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church decided to stay within the PC-USA. Reverend Stansbury submitted his request to sever his relationship with Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church, effective December 31 of 2012.
In March of 2013, Rev. Dr. Victoria Isaacs was called as interim pastor of Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church. In June of that year, Dr. Isaacs was asked to be Gulf Beach Presbyterian’s transitional pastor through June of 2014. In order to initiate a pastoral search, Dr. Isaacs formed a team to conduct a Mission Study for Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church. The document was completed and accepted by the Presbytery in November of 2013.