Founding of the Church First Presbyterian Church of West Palm Beach was organized by the Reverend Joseph P. Calhoun, D.D. on February 22, 1922 as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. The meeting was held in the Women’s Club of West Palm Beach with 55 charter members. Just two years later, 15 of these people with the conviction that the church should have been chartered under the Presbyterian Church U.S. (Southern denomination), broke away and organized what was to become Memorial Presbyterian Church.
1922 - 1950: A New Building
The congregation of ‘First Church’ continued meeting at the Women’s Club until October 4, 1925 when the new church building was completed on Iris Street with a Sanctuary seating 150 people. A devastating storm on September 16, 1928, demolished the church structure and priceless records were destroyed. This was followed with a decrease in membership one year later from 402 members down to 275 due to extreme financial losses by members in the 1928 tropical storm and the beginning of the Depression.
The present Sanctuary building at the corner of South Olive Avenue and Evernia Street was originally built to house the Central Farmer’s Trust Company Bank. The 1925 Spanish Colonial-style building was designed by Arthur Harmon, who later designed the Empire State Building in New York City. The building was purchased from Central Farmer’s Trust Company Bank on March 7, 1934 for the amount of $45,000. Also, the property to the south of the bank building was acquired. The first service was held in the new Sanctuary on November 18, 1934, marking the first Protestant witness in downtown West Palm Beach.
A robed choir and orchestra were organized in 1936. The first floor area of the Cloister building (now church office, lounge, nursery and restroom) was constructed in 1940 at a cost of $6,000. On April 1, 1941, the Presbyterian Women’s Association was organized merging the Wheel, Missionary Society and Mother’s Council groups together.
World War II brought various activities to the church, including the serving of refreshments to service personnel on Sunday evenings and the large assembly room above the Sanctuary becoming a dormitory for service men on weekends. Some 5,700 letters were written to service men’s families.
First Church assumed the role of parent church during 1945 for the formation of Deerfield Beach Presbyterian Church.
The 25th anniversary was celebrated on February 23, 1947 which included a sermon by the moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.S., the Reverend Frederick W. Evans, D.D. That same year marked the establishment of positions for a Religious Education Director and a Church Secretary.
The large assembly room above the Sanctuary was remodeled to include classrooms during 1950, and the Loggia building was constructed at a cost of $25,000.
1950 - 1970: Building Renovation
Once again, First Church served as a parent church when, in 1952, the Forest Hill Presbyterian Church (now Lakeside Presbyterian Church was organized with a transfer of 66 members to the new church.
Tragedy struck the congregation on October 27, 1955 when its pastor, The Reverend William Morgan Lewis died of a severe heart attack at the age of 44, followed by the death two days later of former pastor, The Reverend Morton Fox, D.D. Services for both pastors were held on October 31, 1955.
The year 1959 marked the major renovation of the Sanctuary, removing the last evidences of its formerly having been a bank- four massive pillars and the vault in the chancel area. The Cloister building was enlarged with the addition of a second floor for classrooms, library, pastor’s study and restrooms.
Rudolph H. Buenz, renowned artist, was engaged in 1960 to design the outstanding stained glass windows that grace the Sanctuary. The project was completed in 1963.
The parenting instinct once again was evidenced when, in 1968 through the Fifty Million Fund of the denomination, First Church concentrated its efforts toward developing Faith Presbyterian Church of Palm Springs. Also, Malcolm Carruthers, Clerk of Session for 34 years was recognized for outstanding services.
1970 -1980: 50th Anniversary Celebration
The 50th anniversary was celebrated on February 20, 1972, with a special service. In May of 1976, The Jim Davidson Memorial Cassett Ministry was begun with over 500 taped copies per year of worship services distributed to “friends at home” and sold on the patio following each service. In October, of tBell Towerhis year, the Bell Tower and elevator were completed. In July, 1977, Melba Elkins, our faithful choir director, retired after 23 years of service. The ship’s bell from the U.S.S. Litchfield, a ship renowned for humanitarian causes from 1920-1946, was installed in the bell tower in May, 1978. The year 1979 saw the formation of a Handbell Choir playing the new Malmark English Handbells provided by a number of church members. In December, 1979, Henry Smith was honored for 22 years as church treasurer.
1980 - 1990: Expansion
A major remodeling and expansion program in 1980 provided for a new kitchen, enlarged Loggia, new ladies restroom and renovated nursery. The History and Memorials display was moved from the third floor area to the south alcove of the Sanctuary.
The Moller pipe organ which had led congregational singing and musical worship for over fifty years was dismantled during 1986 and transported to the M.P. Moller Company in Hagerstown, Maryland for a major rebuilding, revoicing, and enlarging process including a new console. The new and exciting instrument with 954 pipes and 21 chimes was first played on Sunday, July 6, 1986.
The growing youth ministries of the church were complimented in 1986 with the addition of a Wednesday Youth Club for youth of the church and community.
Early in 1987, First Church entered into a covenant with Memorial Presbyterian Church and the Presbytery of Tropical Florida to establish a ministry with Korean Christians of Palm Beach County which will lead to the formation of a Korean Presbyterian Church.
Our history reveals a dedication to the commission of Jesus Christ, “Go, and make disciples.”
1990 - 2000: New Ministries and Leadership
In 1991, the Parish Associate, the Reverend August “Augie” VandenBosche, founded the Senior Adult Ministry (S.A.M.), which currently involves over 20 members in ministry and reaches over 100 older adults each month.
In 1994, after intense prayer and discussion, this congregation voted to maintain an active ministry and presence in the downtown area of West Palm Beach.
In June, 1997, The Reverend Mary E. Wright, was called and installed as the first female Pastor of First Church to aid the leadership in re-developing this congregation. Later, in the fall, the church thanked Sandy Joseph for her service as Church Secretary and welcomed Mr. Gary Richmond as office manager.
In January, 1998, the Session invited the Korean Fellowship to share these facilities, making an even more active commitment to the 1987 covenant.
In December, 1998, The Reverend Augie VandenBosche really retired as Parish Associate and as the Coordinator of the Senior Adult Ministry.
The congregation celebrated the eight-year ministry of Augie as our Parish Associate. However, in early 1999, Augie returned to our worship service to star in our Christmas play that had been delayed because of serious illness. The congregation enjoyed the well done presentation of a play written by our Pastor as the children, youth and adults cheerfully and diligently performed.
In 1999, we welcomed and then said good-bye at the end of year to The Reverend Bruce Sylvester as the Parish Associate for the Senior Adult Ministry. By mid-year, The Korean Fellowship had moved from these facilities into a building meeting their needs and began having Sunday morning worship service.
Throughout 1999, the congregation continued its history of high involvement in mission projects in the neighborhood and in the world through generous offering of time, talents and financial support. The buildings and grounds continued to be repaired and painted, and improvements made to protect the facilities from further moisture damage. The congregation joined the Reconciliation and Mission Program of our denomination, and enjoyed the presence of Miss Yolanda Santos Santos from Mexico City, Mexico. Our worship services included greetings and songs in Spanish. Even though our language and customs were very different, Yolanda helped us to understand the meaning of our unity in Christ.
A small group of members of the church ended the year by playing games and talking together at the church. As the year-end celebration of the downtown area began in its noisy, rambunctious way, the year 2000 was begun in prayer in the Sanctuary.
2000 - 2005: A Shelter in the Time of Storm
During the year of 2000, the congregation continued in its ministry of hospitality and helping change take place in people’s lives. We hosted the June meeting of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, and were lauded for the wise way in which we provided refreshments, lunch and other hospitality factors. We continue to share our resources with the greater church through financial support and people serving as committee members in the Presbytery. An elder also served as a Commissioner to the meeting of the Synod of the South Atlantic.
Our staff changed in several ways. We said goodbye to Thomas Van Soelen who had led our music ministry for several years, and welcomed Cathie Thomas in that position. We welcomed The Reverend Henry Gooch as our Parish Associate, and then wished him well at the end of the year. We have expanded our maintenance staff, and are in the process of sponsoring this worker’s U.S. citizenship. We have deepened our involvement in the electronic media world, as well as our ties and involvement in the immediate downtown area.
In 2001, the congregation continued her history of providing relief to the need of people in the area through beginning a meal ministry on Monday nights. This was begun in cooperation with the Downtown Development Authority who responded to the request and offer of donations of several downtown restaurant owners. This ministry quickly attracted both people who needed the meal as well as volunteers not only in this congregation, but from other faith communities (not only Christian) and some folks who do not attend church anywhere. The ministry focuses upon providing not only a healthy, physically nourishing meal, but an encounter with the love of God.
During this year, Dr. Diane Marshall served as the Director of Music and Mr. John Fitzgerald as organist. The Session decided to discontinue hiring a Parish Associate until a determination of the nature of needed staffing was made.
During the year, 2002, this congregation celebrated its 80th year of ministry in West Palm Beach. This celebration took place in a variety of forms throughout the year and culminated in a Service of Worship and grand celebration banquet and formal meal. Throughout the year, historical and current vignettes were shared during worship, conversations about specific topics were organized and special guests were welcomed. Many other events and mission projects were part of the ongoing life of the congregation. Especially, we were blessed to support three members of our congregation to go to Merida, Mexico for a week long mission trip.
Throughout the year 2003, the congregation continued to worship and serve in faithful ways. Special services of worship included Maundy Thursday, Christmas Eve, and Easter Sunrise. The international “flavor” of our congregation was celebrated on World Communion Day. The Church welcomed the community through opportunities to prayerfully remember September 11th, and to learn more about faith and God through participation in educational panels sponsored by the Interfaith Collective of Palm Beach County. (Our Pastor served as a panel member for each discussion.)
The choir offered special music at Easter and Christmas, as well as providing meaningful music at each service. A special activity of the choir is caroling to the homebound members, a ministry begun about 6 years ago. The congregation participated in the Ecumenical/Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve service, as well as the presbytery regional Reformation Day.
Our life of service continued as we supported the special offerings of Peacemaking, One Great Hour of Sharing, the Joy Offering and Two Cents A Meal. The Presbyterian Women continue to invite the entire congregation to participate in their special offerings of the Birthday Celebration and the Blanket Offering. Members and friends of the church continued to support the Monday and Tuesday Night Meal Ministries as well as provide the meal at the St. George Center on the fifth Wednesday. The Senior Adult Ministry continued offering monthly luncheons as well as several trips, with the determination to offer these at a price that the folks could afford. Our “ordinary” way of life continued as we attended presbytery meetings, participated in seminars about church growth, and made greater intentional efforts of transformation of the church. Extraordinary highlights of this year include entering covenantal relationships with two other congregations who wished to share the facilities. The Deeper Life Fellowship, a congregation of people from several Caribbean islands, and Shiloh Church, a Haitian, congregation began worshipping, praying and studying in the buildings.
In 2004, the amazing grace-filled service of this small congregation continued. We continued to learn and enact more towards revitalizing/redeveloping/transforming this congregation for these days and times. We welcomed and said goodbye to two organist/choir directors, Mr. Baden Griffin and Mr. Bruce Linser, both of whom contributed much towards helping the music ministry of this church be clarified and ready to leap with faith into what God has already provided. Our meal ministries, SAM program, and weekly worship and fellowship life continued.
The highlight of the year was the response this congregation was able to provide after two hurricanes created havoc in our immediate area. (The congregation also responded to the devastation that was suffered further north of us, as well as across the state as four hurricanes swept across Florida.) Connections among the congregation and pastor were made before and after the storms to assess needs and situations of the members. After this was done, the Pastor made her way to the church as quickly as she could. Because the staff had prepared the buildings for the storm and this area was not in the path of the fiercest part of the storm, there was only slight damage. Most importantly, because planning included leaving certain circuit breakers on, the refrigerators and freezers maintained a cold enough temperature to safely store perishable food. After calling for volunteers from the surrounding residential communities, meals were prepared and served to many people both at lunch and dinner time for several days after the storm. The community responded with more help as well as words of gratitude. The church also hosted several meetings for civic and faith groups to meet and discuss disaster relief efforts and needs.
2005 - 2010: Joining with Others
The year of 2005 began with great events. We welcomed Ronald Hayde as Choir Director and Organist, and watched with grateful hearts as the choir welcomed new members and offered inspiring music. We engaged in seminars with members of the Presbytery’s Church Transformation Committee, and experienced a growing energy, and excitement towards making some changes so that the church was able to move forward in her ministry of the day and place. We celebrated Easter and Pentecost with beauty and vigor, and established a cycle of congregational life for our Sunday times of community. We considered today, and look forward to our centennial.
The year of 2006, began with the congregation agreeing to end the pastoral relationship with Pastor Mary E. Wright. The Presbytery of Tropical Florida oversaw a period of transition encompassing a review and reflection from the members and staff through a process headed up by an outside consultant. It was determined through mutual agreement to dissolve this pastoral relationship.
During the year and transition period, supply pastors filled the pulpit on Sundays and the Members of Session led the congregation through the process of healing and prayer and came together to form a vision for the future of First Church.
In April, 2007, The Reverend W. Thomas Slager was chosen to be the Stated Supply allowing First Church to have a pastoral presence during the week as well as on Sundays for worship and pastoral care giving.
Also in 2007, The Monday Night Meal Ministry celebrated its sixth year of providing a hot meal for those in need in the downtown community. In August, a new meal ministry coordinator, Patricia Glover was hired and has brought new ideas and a passion to help our fellow brothers and sisters.
In September, 2007, First Church welcomed Mr. Robert Glover as the new Choir Director and Organist and soon realized that we had been blessed by his presence.
In the summer of 2009, a decision by the Session was made to enter into a Shared Use Covenant with the Korean Presbyterian Church whereby the sharing of the property facilities and expenses would be shared by both congregations.
Unfortunately, because of financial constraints during this time period, First Church was no longer able to afford to pay a stipend to the choir members and has had to become dependent on many of the former members volunteering their time and talents for our worship services.
We are very grateful and fortunate for them all!
Shortly thereafter, the relationship between Rev. Slager and First Church ended and while the Session reviewed their options for a new Stated Supply, the role of Sunday Worship Pulpit Supply was filled by many visiting pastors.
On December 1, 2009 a contract was entered into with Mrs. Shirley Saunders for the position of Stated Supply and on December 13, 2009 Shirley Saunders was ordained and became the Reverend Shirley Saunders, Stated Supply of First Church.
The congregation of First Presbyterian Church is determined to seek the will of God for her mission in this time and place. We acknowledge that we are here to be a spiritual presence in this city, and wish to serve as the loving heart of the city, meeting the needs of the people who live and work in this area. We shall continue to create the most loving atmosphere we can through the appearance of our facility, the seminars and events that we offer, fellowship with people of all walks of life, and opening our facility as a place for other groups to meet, hold receptions, display art and hold concerts and recitals.
And, it is our intention to become a spiritual oasis in the city area, providing a place of quiet and solitude for meditation, or simply eating lunch. Our ministry of music will expand to offer weekday lunchtime periods of reflection through art, music, inspirational readings and silence.
Our worship is of a joyful nature, offering encounters of praise and healing with God. First Presbyterian Church is an inclusive church and all people are welcomed into the worship and fellowship of this community.
Surely, this is the day the Lord has made, and we will rejoice and be glad in it.