ANNA MARIA -- This island community, which recently celebrated the centennial of the Anna Maria City Pier, has another big 100-year anniversary coming up in 2013.
In 1913, Charles Roser, a developer and reputed inventor of the Fig Newton, donated a chapel to the people of the island as a nondenominational house of worship in memory of his father and mother.
That was before the island was connected by bridges to the mainland, had electricity, or was populated by more than a handful of people.
The chapel, now part of Roser Memorial Community Church, 512 Pine Ave., is just a short stroll from the pier.
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The original chapel, with its lovely dark-wood nave, is still in use, although a much newer 400-seat sanctuary on the opposite side of the church campus now serves as the primary worship facility.
The Rev. Gary Batey has a keen sense of humor, as well as of history.
He notes that some have disputed the claim that Roser invented Fig Newtons, now manufactured by Nabisco.
“It’s our story and we’re sticking to it,” he says.
In fact, for many of its special days, the church hands out Fig Newtons.
While Roser gave the island a place to worship, it was not a run-away success at first.
Florida’s infamous land bust of the 1920s, followed by the decade-long Great Depression and savage hurricanes, put the island on a slow path to growth. For a time, the chapel was abandoned and infested by rats and insects.
In the 1930s, a few townspeople began cleaning up the chapel to allow worship there again. It wouldn’t be until 1939 that Roser Memorial Community Church was chartered, Batey said.
Batey and his wife, Karen, moved to Anna Maria shortly after Christmas of 1999. Batey has been Roser Memorial’s only pastor of this century. He gave his first sermon there Jan. 2, 2000.
Among those who heard him preach that first year was Cyndy Custis. She came for the preaching and to hear the “Joyful Noise Choir.”
“We were hooked,” she said.
She became a member, and has been church secretary for six years.
Attendance fluctuates from 200 in the summer to between 500 and 700 in season, when two services are required to accommodate all the worshippers. Easter has been known to attract as many as 1,000.
Though the church is nearing 100, hardening of the arteries has not yet set in.
“We take very seriously our middle name, ‘Community,’” Batey said. “We are a church on an island, but we are not a church island.”
Roser Memorial houses a food pantry for people on the island facing hunger. The pantry distributes 120 to 130 bags of groceries a month.
“The churches on Anna Maria Island work together and contribute to the pantry,” he said.
Island churches also work together on Family Promise.
Roser Memorial serves as the island’s host site for Family Promise, which helps homeless families get back on their feet by providing a place to sleep for a week at a time. The classrooms at Roser are equipped with inflatable beds.
The church can accommodate up to four families at a time.
Roser is also known for its Bethlehem Walk at Christmas, when congregation members dress in biblical costume and walk with donkeys, goats and sheep through the streets of Anna Maria.
“We go around the neighborhood seeking a place for the Christ child to be born,” he said.
Batey reads the Christmas story from the back porch of the church.
On Christmas Eve, the church has a traditional service, and a second ser- vice with 12-foot-tall pup- pets telling the nativity story.
“They are bigger than life and that’s the point of the story,” he said.
On Thanksgiving, the congregation serves dinner for anyone on the island who needs a place to eat.
“We have almost 200 eat here on Thanksgiving,” he said.
If someone has a place, but no food, the church provides the fixings for a meal.
The congregation also provides volunteers for Our Daily Bread, the soup kitchen at the Bill Galvano One-Stop Center in Bradenton.
All of the community service is striving to provide for the spiritual, emotional, physical and social needs of the folks the church serves.
“Jesus did that. He healed them, he fed them, made them feel welcome and took care of their hurts,” Batey said.
“We think that is part of proclaiming the gospel.”
The church attracts a constant flow of lay leaders and experienced faith workers.
“This is a great congregation. It’s probably the last one I will serve full-time. It’s without question the best time of my life,” Batey said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.
IF YOU GO
What: Roser Memorial Community Church
Where: 512 Pine Ave., Anna Maria
Pastor: Rev. Gary Batey
Summer worship hours: 10 a.m. Sunday
Information: (941) 778-0414; www.roserchurch.com