Some of WJ Shelton’s earliest memories are peeking between the bars in the nursery of First United Methodist Church.
Back then, it was scary to be left alone by his parents, but as he grew, the church became another home to him, his family and much of the community. Shelton, most know him by his nickname, “Tink,” and his family never missed a Sunday.
“On Sundays, Dad would crank up the Model-T and drive us to Sunday school,” Shelton said.
First United Methodist Church, 603 11th St. W., has been a pillar of the Bradenton and Manatee County community since it opened 125 years ago, and the church is preparing to celebrate its legacy in Bradenton.
“Initially, we had a Methodist Episcopal congregation on the Manatee River and one of their first homes was the church at Manatee Village,” Phaedra Carter, Manager of Historical Resources for the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller said. “Part of (First United Methodist Church’s) congregation was part of that church.”
Now, the current congregation, led by Pastor H. Clark Edwards, is ready to celebrate 125 years in the community. On March 4, the church will host an anniversary celebration. Musical performances, worship, fellowship and a lunch are all expected, he said.
The Ditchfield Family Singers will perform at 2 p.m. Celebrations will move to the church at the Manatee Village Historical Park where a refreshment social will be held, followed by a performance by the Reflectsons at 4 p.m. More details about the church’s celebration plans can be found on their Facebook page.
Church, Carter said, was a significant way of life in the area, even long before First United Methodist Church was formed.
“I think it’s really what saw them through trying times initially, we see it time and time again in diary entries,” Carter said. “It was really just a hub of the community.”
Generations of families can be traced through the church — Shelton and his family are just one of many examples in the congregation that have raised children and grandchildren in the church’s four walls and the nursery.
Shelton, who at 95-years-old is one of the oldest living members of the congregation, and his wife, Jean, raised their family in the church and held several titles within the church over the years. Their daughter, Elaine, and granddaughter both got married there after a lifetime in the congregation. Still, Elaine joins her father on the pulpit side of the church in the 12th row from the back, Shelton said.
Niki Cord Hackney grew up in youth classes with Shelton’s daughter, and recalled fond memories of meeting up with the adults for donuts and playing four-square in the fellowship hall.
“We made friends for a lifetime,” Hackney said. “We haven’t lost touch even though they don’t live here anymore.”
Like several others, she was baptized and later married in the church. She said she can still smell the church’s old wood, even years later. And there is a picture of Jesus hanging in the stairwell today that she swears was in her Sunday school classroom as a child.
“It demonstrates how strong of faith our community has and the traditions they have growing up with families really incorporates that,” Carter said. “And there’s strong ties in the community because they worshiped together in the congregation.”
“There’s that camaraderie, you can always go back,” Hackney said.
Not only has the church kept it’s congregation downtown, it’s expanded to add four other United Methodist congregations in Samoset and Braden River, as well as Christ United Methodist Church and Trinity United Methodist Church in Bradenton, according to church officials.
The “Little White Church” where the congregation first gathered was built in 1898, but the current building was constructed in 1923. Over the years it has expanded and now holds a congregation of about 150 people on a weekly basis, and up to nearly 200 in season.
Carter is glad to see First United Methodist Church still in the 11th Street West building.
“It really adds to the historic character downtown and it’s a testament to how the community feels about preserving architecture,” Carter said.
Though the building itself has changed, Shelton still remembers the old balcony and the old pews — before a renovation in the 1990s, he said.
Bill King sat in the church flipping through a photo album, studying pictures of the church in its different buildings.
“The halls have changed and pastors have come and gone, but there are still some people around who have seen the comings and goings,” King said.
King, 80, is one of them. He was baptized in the church, as was his son, who later got married there too. King’s daughter also had her wedding at First United Methodist Church.
The church is showing no signs of going anywhere once the celebration is over. Pastor Edwards said the church will continue to use it’s downtown location to address issues in the community head-on.
“Being downtown, we have the responsibility to do what God is planning for the church,” Edwards said. “We think we’ve got a good future too.”
That means continuing a mission that feeds the homeless, donating beds to less fortunate children in the community and starting a recovery program.