The beige block and stucco church is tucked comfortably among homes and small businesses along Tallevast Road.
To many, Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church is the heart and soul of this close-knit southern Manatee County community.
“The church is the most important thing in my life,” said Virginia Massie, 71, who was born and raised in Tallevast. “It’s always been here. It’s rewarding. It’s steadfast. It’s always there to reinforce my faith in God and mankind.”
Massie, who has been the church clerk for 20 years, just as her mother and grandmother before her, was busy last week with several other members of the congregation preparing for the weeklong centennial celebration of the church.
The 150-member church was founded in 1909 when Tallevast was a small sawmill town, surrounded with vegetable and strawberry fields by the sons and daughters of former slaves.
Massie’s grandparents were four of those founding members of Mount Tabor, named after the mountain in Galliee said to be the site of Jesus’ Transfiguration.
From the humble beginnings of home church meetings, the church grew and a small chapel was built near the railway station that carried the lumber and farm products to distant markets.
As the congregation grew, a larger, frame sanctuary was constructed in the 1920s and was used for worship until the present church was built in the 1960s.
“The congregation rejoiced about the new church,” said Pastor Ezell Patterson, who started preaching at Mount Tabor 33 years ago. “It was like a new spirit came upon them.”
The newer, larger church energized the spiritual life of the congregation and its tradition of ministry to the community, the Rev. Patterson said.
For Clifford Ward, who is one of Massie’s six siblings and chairman of the church Board of Deacons, the celebration of 100 years is a witness of the work of the Lord in the community.
“The church itself to me is a representation of God in our midst,” said Ward, as he prepared the historical documents that line the walls of the church fellowship hall. “So we can look to the church for peace and comfort and the help we need.”
He said the church provides spiritual nourishment.
“It is from this place we can get the kind of change in our spirit that will make us ready for eternal existence in God’s presence,” said Ward, who is a semi-retired dentist working with his daughter, also a dentist, in an office next to the church.
“To be able to say, ‘I’ve been the part of something that has been in place for 100 years,’ means a lot to me,” he said, “because of the fact that my family, both on the maternal and paternal grandparents’ sides, was instrumental in packaging this, which would be a vessel to transport me and mine to place of higher existence.”
Through the years the mission of the church to provide that spiritual guidance has remained strong within the community, the only thing that has changed is the times and local issues that the congregation has had to deal with.
“We try to help in multiple ways, Ward said. “The church has always decided that because it’s always a force in the community to identify with them and their problems.”
Unlike most of the congregation who were born and raised in Tallevast, Deacon Lewis Pryor came to the community from Bradenton when he married Tallevast native Carolyn Reeves in 1970.
Pryor said he was impressed with the friendliness of the congregation and how they support one another.
“The people were welcoming,” he said “There was no animosity toward outsiders.”
Because Pryor’s wife has a generational connection to the church — her uncle, the Rev. John Willis, was one of the first ordained ministers from the congregation — it was a natural for him to become a member.
“Belonging to Mount Tabor is the stopping point in my search for a church home,” he said. “I’ve belonged to other churches, but never found the peace and tranquility of here.”
Even though Associate Pastor Willie C. Shaw has attended Mount Tabor since he was a child, he can attest that the church provides comfort and nourishment.
“Mount Tabor has always been a true spiritual experience in my growing years,” said the Rev. Shaw, who would visit as a child from Sarasota with his mother, a Tallevast native. “The setting was always uplifting and maintained the flavor of family.”
Both his great-grandmother and great-grandfather were charter members of the church.
“The church has always been an extension of my immediate family,” Shaw said.
The multigenerational nature of the church membership keeps the community strong.
“It is the nucleus or hub of all the surrounding areas,” Shaw said. “There’s the continued warmth of the members.”
The continuity of family relationships to Mount Tabor also has left a lasting impressing on Massie.
“I remember both my paternal and maternal grandparents being in church, and it’s amazing that where they sat we now sit,” she said. “When you’re young you don’t see yourself there sitting in those pews doing the same things that they did.”
This just re-enforces the Biblical teachings of keeping the faith from generation to generation, Massie said.
“So you grow wiser as you grow older and you appreciate what was in your past,” she said, “because without that you wouldn’t be what you are today.”
Because of the legacy and heritage that the Mount Tabor leadership maintains, the future for the congregation is certain.
“It’s very important to keep the relations that were started over a hundred years ago,” Shaw said.