First Presbyterian rebuilds three years after storm
The whole church leans at about a 10 degree angle, shifted on its foundation by Hurricane Michael. There is no denying the building’s beauty – vaulted wooden ceilings and colorful stained glass. First Presbyterian’s moderator, Carol Wood, says it’s one of only a few churches built in this style that is still left standing.
Still, the leaning walls give the church’s interior an unnerving air.
The floor is uneven, the beams are slanted, and there are pockets of light filtering in through the patched-up ceiling. But in the coming days, Wood said, a lot of that will be fixed.
“The Ducky Johnson House Movers from over in Marianna are bringing these gigantic jacks, and they will gradually raise the building up and build the new foundation and put it back down,” she said.
Construction crews from Ducky Johnson arrived at the site in Wewahitchka a few days before Thanksgiving, and soon, they are expected to complete their much-awaited repairs.
“Finally,” Wood said.
The congregation has been meeting in its Fellowship Hall since 2018, unsure of the structural security in their sanctuary. And while it was always intended as a temporary solution, the hall has come to house the church’s pews and pulpit after congregants moved them to the side building over the years.
The church’s presence in the community has been long and impressive, though it is often overshadowed by discussions of the county’s other historic buildings – like the Port Theatre and the Wewahitchka Courthouse, which are also in desperate need of repair.
James Rish, who has been coming to the church since he was a boy, said he always remembered the church being a central structure in the town.
He pointed out some fire damage the building took on decades ago after a car crashed into its left wall, explaining that the town had long speculated which of his schoolmates had been responsible for the damage.
“Of course I know who it was,” he laughed when the other congregants asked. “But he’s dead now.”
“This building has been through a lot.”
The sanctuary was built in around 1895 and consecrated in 1903, according to a history published by Rosenia Kilbourn, and the building has housed many different congregations.
“If you go to Wewahitchka, you’ll see imprisoned into the sidewalk St. John’s Episcopal, because it was built in the late 1890s as an Episcopal church,” Wood said. “At different times of service, Roman Catholics were meeting there, Methodists… I think in 1942 it was officially purchased by the Presbytery of Florida, Presbyterian Church, but the Episcopalians continued to meet there until 2005.”
At one point, Wood said, she had hoped to get the church placed on the National Register of Historic Places after receiving a recommendation stating it could quicken the pace of rebuilding.
A dispute over the building’s steeple, which was added onto the structure in the 1940s, prevented Wood and her congregation from accomplishing that goal.
Wood said looking back at the many efforts it took the congregation to get to this point makes her feel even more thankful for recent developments.
But there is more work to be done.
While the church received FEMA funding for repairs to its damaged structure, Wood said the national agency will only pay to restore the building to pre-hurricane conditions, and it had been in need of some repairs then too.
But Wood envisions the church stepping up its role in the community, with a fresh facade paid for through one of several buckets she hopes to be able to draw from.
Recently, she entered the building to be considered for a T-Mobile Hometown Grant, which aims to restore significant structures in communities across the country. She has not yet heard of the status of that application.
“I’ve been working on another grant to try to scrape and paint the exterior of the church, to paint the exterior of the fellowship hall,” Wood said, “so that perhaps this can be not only for worship, but a place for the community, for weddings, for other events that can happen here and in the Fellowship Hall.”