ANNA MARIA ISLAND -- In her two books about Anna Maria Island, historian Carolyne Norwood devotes a goodly share of her attention to the first church on the island, Roser Memorial Community Church, at 512 Pine Ave.
Certainly the fact that Norwood has been a member of Roser for 50 years initially spurred her interest, but as she delved into the novel-like history of the church she said her affection grew.
"How can you not be intrigued by the story of a man, John Roser, who was sitting on the front porch of his Pine Avenue cottage where Sato Real Estate is now, looks across at an open field and says to himself, 'That's where a chapel should be. I'll build it and dedicate it to my wife.' And then he did it for $3,100 using Fig Newton money!" Norwood said recently.
The $3,100 created a hardy concrete block chapel made
to look like stone by builder Capt. Mitch Davis in 1913. A great piece of the lore of the church involves the story that John Roser sold the recipe for Fig Newton cookies to the National Biscuit Company for $1 million.
The chapel was later joined by a 400-plus seat sanctuary, where, for the past 100 years, Anna Maria Island residents and visitors have had spirited nondenominational Christian services.
On Sunday from 10-11 a.m., the church will celebrate the centennial of the 90-seat chapel with a public rededication service that is expected to draw so many people -- 650 chairs will be set up -- that the church has rented a 60-foot by 90-foot tent to accommodate the crowd outside, said the Rev. Gary Batey.
Former pastors, like the Rev. Frank Hutchinson and the Rev. Richard Wiggins, are expected to attend as well as local dignitaries.
"It will be a regular service until the point when we will rededicate the chapel," Batey said earlier this week. "A few individuals from the church will do a reading and the chapel will be rededicated for worship, music and children's education, the things we use it for now mostly.
"One of the things is certainly the character of the chapel itself," Batey added. "People come in and feel they are in a holy space. It is a remarkable feeling to be in there. The prayers and faithfulness of 100 years have seeped into the building. It smells like an old building, not bad, but distinctive. The life of the church is in there."
A Roser world premier
Rex Willis, 56, a music instructor at State College of Florida, will be at Roser Sunday for the world premier of his original anthem, "Psalm 84," which was commissioned by Roser to mark the occasion of the rededication.
"Pastor Batey and I worked together to choose the psalm," Willis said.
"I wrote the music over a period of two months," Willis added. "It's about four minutes long."
The anthem, which has the subtitle, "Blessed Are They That Dwell in Thy House," will also be performed 8 p.m., Tuesday, April 2, in Neel Performing Arts Center at SCF Bradenton, 5840 26th St. West during the highly-anticipated, "Rex Willis and Friends" concert, which features Willis' original compositions.
At Neel, "Psalm 84" will be sung by the SCF Chamber Choir, accompanied by Lurray Meyers on pipe organ,
Willis believes "Psalm 84" will stir hearts with its a cappella sections punctuated by organ interludes leading to a huge exuberant ending.
"I hope the congregation will feel elated," Willis said.
Moments after the service is over at about 11 a.m., the congregation will be invited to a special opening of the Anna Maria Island Historical Museum, 402 Pine Avenue, where Norwood has used text and photographs on four-foot by six-foot panels to create an informative display about Roser Church.
For those who wish to delve deeper into history shown on the panels, Norwood's books, "Tale of Three Cities, Bean Point to Bridge Street Anna Maria Island, 1940-1970" and "The Early Days, 1893-1940," will be available at the museum, whose website is AMIHS.org.
A reader can learn that Roser Church volunteers wrote the times of the church services in chalk on the sidewalk so fishermen walking to the Gulf of Mexico might notice.
Norwood also explains that Batey hands out Fig Newtons to all the visitors in the service, usually dispensing with about 20 of the cookies each Sunday and 6,500 over a year.
"I don't know if it's an accurate depiction," Batey said of the Fig Newton tale. "I have heard that the Rosers came up with the recipe for the cookie or they came up with the manufacturing process of making a Fig Newton on a large scale, using an extrusion machine where filling and cookie dough are simultaneously fed so that the cookies come out with an inner fig jam and an outer cookie."
When church officials contacted Fig Newton manufacturer Nabisco several years ago, they were told the company did not know who the Rosers were, Batey said.
"But we feel the Rosers worked with a company that was sold to another company that was sold to still another company that was sold to Nabisco," Batey said. "Whatever, it is our story and we're sticking to it."