The First Presbyterian Church of Lehigh Acres at the corner of Joel and Bell boulevards will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a special church service and musical program on Sunday, Dec. 1.
Members want to turn the celebration also into an invitation to the community and especially the young people of Lehigh to come to the service and the dinner afterwards, said Chuck Lantz, chairman of the committee planning the celebration.
First Presbyterian is believed to be the second oldest church in Lehigh, having started under the guidance of the Home Mission Committee of Westminster Presbytery. In March of 1963, a small group met in the offices of the Lehigh Corp. to talk about the formation of a Presbyterian Church in Lehigh. The town was founded by the Lehigh Corp.
Deciding to move ahead, services were first conducted in the Lehigh Auditorium on Joel Boulevard.
A petition bearing enough signatures was presented to the Presbytery for the organization of a Presbyterian Church in Lehigh and on Dec. 8, 1963, the first sermon was held with 61 members on hand.
The Lehigh Corp had donated two acres of land to the members as Lehigh Corp. did for several others of the first churches in Lehigh. It is believed it is only second in age to the First Congregational Church on Leeland Heights Boulevard, which is still holding services today as is the First Presbyterian Church of Lehigh Acres.
After the gift of land from the Lehigh Corp, the church was able to purchased additional property for future development, Lantz said.
Construction was started in May of 1965.
The actual first service was held on January 23, 1966.
The church is unique inasmuch as its roof features are extremely sloping and copper colored. The design, according to records at the church, resembled praying hands and so the church was often referred to as the "Church of the Praying Hands."
Chuck Lantz and his Outreach Committee of five members have been busy making preparations for the 50th anniversary celebration.
Other members of his committee include Mary Ann Stenborg, Nancy Lantz, Connie Holck, Russ Holck and Tom McNutt.
The first minister of the church was the Rev. James B. Campbell, who according to an article in a newspaper in 1967, came to Lehigh from the First Presbyterian Church in Dade City, Fla. He had been a teacher and had been an active member of the U.S. Air Force.
Thomas McNutt, one of the senior members of the church, said Rev. Campbell has since passed away.
In fact, McNutt said the first members, known as the charter members of the church, are all deceased. Those that were still alive were honored in 1998 when the church celebrated its 35th anniversary. At the time, Rev. Timothy J. Olds was the church pastor.
That celebration was well remembered because there was a mortgage shredding that took place with the Florida Community Bank. In fact, Thomas McNutt began the program at noon on Nov. 1, 1998 with an official welcome. He was at that time the coordinator for the 35th anniversary of the church.
Today, in addition to Rev. R. Craig Countiss, the administrative assistant is Darlene Rayhart, who works at the church during the week.
While McNutt and others may be in their senior years, it was noted by one of the members of the Outreach Committee that the oldest member of the church is Alethea Chalker who is 92 years old and attends every Sunday sermon. She is brought to the church by a fellow member.
The church sometime around 15 years ago also became "the place" where youngsters used skateboards to zoom up and down the sloping rooflines of the church. While the activity took place occasionally, church officials had to put a stop because of the danger it could have caused to the kids who thought it was a great joy ride, some of the members recall. Today there is place at Veterans Park for youngsters who still like to skateboard.
But first and above all things, Outreach Committee Chairman Chuck Lantz says the church is actively seeking new members.
"We do not have a Sunday School for children because our members are past the age of young parents. If and when we can bring younger people and their families into the church, we are going to begin again our Sunday School for them," Lantz said.
One of the functions, too, of the Outreach Committee, is the recruitment of new members to the church.
"We're a friendly church and I think visitors would feel very welcome here," said Connie Holck, one of the committee members.
The current membership of the church is about 110 members, according to the books. More young people would continue the spirit of the founding fathers of the church, also known as the charter members, because many of them had young children.
Back in the early days of the church, Lehigh was nothing like now. Today, there are 100,000 plus residents of the community. Back when the church first began, Lehigh was a small community and the population may not have been more than 10,000. Some oldtimers in the community like to say they remember when there was only one stoplight in town.
Those were the days when Lee Ratner and the Lehigh Corp. with Gerald Gould and others offered land to all religious denominations for free if they would form a congregation and build a church. The invitation was taken up by several churches.
"We really want the community to attend our special anniversary services. We especially want to offer an invitation to young families. If they are looking for a church home, I believe they would be happy in our congregation," said Outreach Chairman Chuck Lantz.
A handmade sign facing Joel Blvd. advertises the special services and when they are to be held.
Some advice for the younger members though, don't bring a skateboard because as attractive as the roof may be, no skateboarding is allowed anymore, laughed one of the members.