Monday, November 4, 2019

Punta Gorda's First Church Service and the Beginnings of the Bethel AME Church

Shortly after the first passenger train arrived in Trabue in July of 1886, Dan Smith, a black man, organized the first religious service in the town. He, with the help of other African Americans in the survey crew, including Sam Kenedy, and men named Graham, Fuller and Ransom,  hired by Albert W. Gilchrist, then a young engineer, erected a palmetto thatched roof shelter for the service.  It was attended by the crew as well as other African Americans and their families already living in Trabue including Isaac Howard, A.G. Reese, S.P. Andrews, Lynn and Rhoda Jackson and Henry Simmons.  Several white families also attended said to have included Isaac and Virginia Trabue, Jacob Wotitzky, Ephraim Goldstein, James Sandlin and their wives. This event led to the establishment of the Bethel AME Church. 

The African American religious community continued to meet informally under the arbor until Isaac Trabue bequeathed some land for the newly organized African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1888. Witness to the transaction was M.T.B. Thomas, the first pastor; Dan Smith, the trustee for the church; and James Sandlin.  Lumber was paid for by Jacob Wotitzky, and Smith and other congregation members built the first sanctuary at Helen Avenue and Milus.  Robert Meacham, postmaster in Punta Gorda, who had organized the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the State of Florida, served as Pastor of the Bethel Church from 1890 to 1892. 

In 1897, a new church was built at Olympia and Wood Streets, unfortunately, destroyed by Hurricane Donna.  A later church structure was severely damaged in Hurricane Charley. Then, in 2006, the current church edifice was dedicated at 260 E. Olympia.   The current pastor is Rev. Frankie S. Fayson III. 

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