BRADENTON -- Not much existed here in 1886, when St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church was founded.
It would still be two years before the City of Manatee was incorporated in 1888; it would be 17 years before the forerunner of Bradenton, The City of Braidentown, incorporated in 1903.
A hump-backed wooden bridge, the first to span the Braden River, had been erected only a couple of years earlier near the present-day spot where State Road 70 crosses the river.
Several other Manatee County churches began forming in the 1840s, but St. Paul can still be counted among the most venerable Christian congregations that remain a force today.
It is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a banquet, visiting preachers and a special anniversary worship set for Feb. 13.
Pastor James M. Roberts says a single thread runs throughout the church’s long history: the love of God.
“This church survived due to the love of God,” said Roberts. “That means to the next extent, it’s all about prayer. The church loves God, and builds relationships.”
The Rev. J.W. Rosier was the church’s founder, and its original building was at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 10th Street East, according to a history of the church compiled for its 100th anniversary.
The congregation purchased a bell, but decided it wasn’t good enough, and ordered a second one -- the best bell it could buy, says 93-year member Florence S. Lawrence, 99, of Bradenton.
The heavy bell tolled atop the building until about 1913, when the structure was destroyed by fire; its bell survived.
St. Paul’s faithful worked to keep their congregation going.
They began to meet at the Odd Fellow’s Hall and at a schoolhouse, the history said. On special occasions, they also met at St. Stephen’s Methodist Church, according to Lawrence.
In 1914, the Rev. P.A. James paid $175 for the church’s present lot at 525 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. E. Construction of a new structure began, but was not completed until a few years later.
The big, heavy bell from the original church was re-installed atop the new building, and resumed its leading role in summoning the faithful.
“When you rang it, you could hear it all over Bradenton,” said Lawrence, whose family lived across the street from the church. A deacon rang the bell as a call to worship or to announce a death, she recalled.
When she first moved here from Dade City, the structure was new. It was a simple building with a steeply sloped roof and an unusual rounded room.
“It was just beautiful,” remembered Lawrence. “It really was nice.”
In 1918, workers were still installing carpet runners and painting the windows.
“They always had something good for young people,” said Lawrence, who was among 12 children in her family.
St. Paul was among the leading churches in Bradenton, she said.
“Like the mother church,” she remembered. “Lots of children came from Bradenton. It was good; children couldn’t wait till Sunday came.”
Lawrence was married there in 1921, she said.
In the 1960s, church members began raising money for a new building, collecting $8,000, part of which paid for additional land.
The new building was dedicated April 28, 1963, the history said.
Atop the new church proudly hung the big antique bell that had been a lasting testament to its longevity. It resumed its deep call to the faithful.
But during a recent renovation, contractors took the bell down while they worked on the building.
It remained on the grounds of the church, until it disappeared one day -- stolen by thieves, Roberts said.
The pastor was so upset at its loss, he even searched Sarasota scrap yards trying to retrieve it.
“It was like a keepsake for us,” said Ruby Byrd, a 45-year church member whose husband, the late Rev. Harold Byrd, led the church 17 years until his death in 1989.
The bell was never recovered.
Still, the church continues to be a sanctuary for its flock, even without its historic bell.
Its members try live up to its slogan: “The friendly church in the midst of a friendly city, where friendly people come to worship, and the love of God flows like a river.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.