Through war, pestilence and cycles of economic boom and bust, Manatee United Methodist Church has persevered and served the spiritual needs of its members for 160 years.
In 1887, a yellow fever epidemic swept through Manatee County, killing the pastor and many members of the congregation and delaying completion of a then-new sanctuary.
That sanctuary, built when the congregation was already 40 years old, is now located in Manatee Village Historical Park, south of Manatee Avenue and west of 15th Street East.
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It’s wooden floors wear a rich, brown patina, and kerosene lamps, which have been converted to electricity, line the sanctuary. Many members of the congregation are interred in the Manatee Burying Grounds next door, which dates to 1850.
On Sunday, at 10:30 a.m., the congregation will meet to pray, preach, and celebrate the church’s 160th anniversary.
It is the oldest congregation of any denomination on the west coast of Florida south of Tampa, according to a state historic marker.
The 1887 sanctuary was originally located at 315 15th St. E., on the north side of Manatee Avenue, and just a couple of blocks from the Manatee River.
That plot of land was bought in 1866 by the church’s John W. Curry, Ezekiel Glazier and James G. Cooper. The present-day masonry sanctuary was constructed on the site and consecrated on Jan. 12, 1975.
Mindful of its rich past, stained glass windows with the names of early members from previous incarnations of the church have been installed inside the current church.
Members trace their church’s history back to 1842 when the first Methodist Society was formed in the Village of Manatee. In 1845, the Rev. Henry Minor, a traveling circuit rider, was assigned to periodically visit the Manatee Methodists.
In 1849, the nine members of the congregation founded the church, next door to the Burying Grounds on land donated by Dr. Franklin Branch. During the week, Electa Lee taught school in the building, according to church history.
Mary Ann and Joe Brito have been members of the church for 28 years. They say they were attracted to the church by the friendliness of its members.
“Everyone speaks to you. After my first service, the pastor personally invited me to a Sunday school class,” said Mary Ann Brito.
With all of its history and tradition, members have elected to stay and serve its blue-collar East Bradenton neighborhood.
One of its outreaches is a daycare center serving about 60 children from the neighborhood, the Britos said.
In addition to the immediate neighborhood, members also come from Northwest Bradenton, Ellenton and East Manatee neighborhoods like Waterlefe and Heritage Harbour, the Britos said. In winter, the sanctuary may have as many as 275 worshippers sitting in pews.
During its anniversary service Sunday, many members of the choir and congregation will dress as the pioneers did in 1849, and many of the hymns will be those that might be familiar to John Curry and Ezekiel Glazier.
Jim Niemeyer, associate pastor, said he believes the church has survived because of God’s love for his people. One of church’s logos is a lighthouse.
“We use it as a reminder that we are a lighthouse to the community we serve and beyond,” Niemeyer said.
The Rev. Neal Long, senior pastor, said the church is an integral part of what is now the Old Manatee Village.
“It was founded seven years after the first settlers came here. Folks began gathering in homes for Bible study and worship. By 1849 there were enough people to charter a Methodist congregation,” Long said.
“From its inception, the Methodist Church has been a vital part of the old Manatee neighborhood. Through all the changes, the church has been the one stable part of the Old Manatee community.”
For more information about the church, call 746-0101 or visit www.manateeunitedmethodistchurch.com/
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.