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Safety Harbor Church in Heritage Village: An admonition for today's churches

Heritage Village welcome sign
Heritage Village welcome sign
Photo by Andrew Verrett

Next to the Florida Botanical Gardens and across Walsingham Road from Walsingham Park, is Heritage Village. It is a living museum located between St. Petersburg and Clearwater in the heart of Pinellas County, Florida. Its historic structures date back to the late 1800's and early 1900's. A cushioned sidewalk meanders throughout the 21 acre park with informational signs along the way. Admission is free, but the park has limited hours. (Check here for location map, directions, and park hours.)

On the grounds of Heritage Village in central Pinellas County, Florida, sets the Safety Harbor Church.
Photo by Andrew Verrett

Visitors can explore a school, a sponge warehouse, a railroad depot, a store, and several houses. Guided tours are available for a couple of the homes. There are knowledgeable guides – many wearing clothing of the era – throughout the park. Heritage Village volunteers on occasion demonstrate pine needle and palm frond weaving, rope making, gardening, laundry, net mending, black smithing, and pioneer cooking. For a current list of collections and exhibits, click here.

On the southern edge of Heritage Village, nestled between the Plant-Sumner house and the Safford Pavilion, sets the Safety Harbor Church. (See the accompanying slide show for photos of the church and other Heritage Village sites. There are more photos on the Heritage Village web page.)

The church house was originally built as a one-room structure in 1905 on the corner of Second Street and Fourth Avenue North in Green Springs (now Safety Harbor). Wind from the hurricane of 1921 lifted the entire building off its foundation, dropped it nearby, and turned it to face in a new direction. It remained there until 1926, when the congregation moved it to an adjacent lot. It lost most of its roof in the hurricane of 1935. There are reports of arson attempts and vandalism on the building. In spite of all of this, it continued to function as the main place of worship until 1960, when church growth meant the need for a new sanctuary. The old building was still put to use for Sunday school and other activities and called the Fellowship Hall. In 1976, discussions began with the Historical Commission to relocate it. In 1977, the roof was removed and the building was moved in two parts to Heritage Village. The structure on display contains the original pulpit and altar rail, which actually came from Sylvan Alley, an even older church.

The church building served the congregations under four names over the years: the Green Springs Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1905-1917); Safety Harbor Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1917-1939); Safety Harbor Methodist Church (1939-1968); and First United Methodist Church of Safety Harbor (1968 until it was moved in 1977).

Falling church attendance for the First United Methodist Church of Safety Harbor resulted in it shuttering its doors. Only ten people attended the final service on Mother’s Day of 2002. (One bit of trivia: during its ninety-seven year ministry, the church had forty-two pastors but only five organists.) Pastor Holly Boardman stated, “The purpose of the organized church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. The church is called to teach, to preach, to heal, and to baptize. The church may be a great place to make friends and to hold profitable rummage sales and chicken dinners, but if such things have become our focus, then we’ve strayed from our center, and it is time to return to the center.” (More information about the church can be found here.)

How many churches need to hear this admonition toady! If your church is not making disciples of Jesus Christ, it has lost its focus and has strayed. It will only last until the members move, quit, or die off. Without new disciples, your church will not be there for the next generation. In 1960, this congregation couldn't fit in the building on display. Just 42 years later, they only had ten people in attendance. In less than one generation, the Methodist Church went from a thriving, growing congregation to an empty building.

As for the building at Heritage Village, it is open for visitors and available for weddings. The inside is well preserved and the air conditioning offers a welcome respite from the Florida heat, humidity, and bugs.

For more information, contact:

Heritage Village
11909 125th Street N.
Largo, FL 33774
(727) 582-2123

It's a great place to visit!

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