About half of the congregation of the First Baptist Church that was located on Sunshine and Lee boulevards, which went into foreclosure a few months ago, are meeting in a rented space at the old Admiral Lehigh strip center at 205 Joel Blvd. Members of the church, now the First Baptist of Lehigh, would like to find a larger place and perhaps purchase it, but right now, money is a problem.
One Lehigh Acres retired businessman has stepped up to the plate to begin a fund to raise money to go toward purchasing a building or church that may be for sale in Lehigh Acres.
Steve Conti, who is active in the community in retirement, once owned Century 21 Real Estate and Aim Mortgage Company. He spent 27 years in the real estate business, he says, and said he retired about five years ago.
He is an active member of the Lehigh Community Council and is known by many people in Lehigh.
At a meeting prior to a concert at the First Baptist of Lehigh two weeks ago, Conti met with the two new ministers of the church, the Revs. John Fuoss and Hector Gomez. Fuoss preaches the English sermons on Sunday mornings while Pastor Gomez preaches the Spanish sermons. In the middle of the two sessions is a Sunday School.
Pastor Fuoss, who is a new minister of the First Baptist of Lehigh, said the congregation is part of the one at the church that had been meeting on Sunshine and Lee boulevards, and that the church had gone into foreclosure at an amount of $3.8 million. The church is for sale presently, according to signs in front of the church.
Conti offered to be the first to give money to start a fund for a new church for the present congregation that Fuoss and Gomez said was not large enough. It's the site where Dewey Tyler of Lehigh once ran a workout gym before the economic downfall some seven or eight years ago. There are several rooms down the long hall and other business people had rented offices there. It had originally been part of the old Lehigh Corporation in the 50s and 60s and was across the street from the main headquarters of the Lehigh Corp., which was demolished a few years ago.
Conti wrote a check for $500 to start off the building fund of the church.
Vernon Angel, who was also at the meeting, had planned a concert on that upcoming Saturday night with a gospel show from the New Life Assembly on Leonard Blvd. The gospel show was presented by the New Life Choir.
It featured Pastor Bernie Mcgraw and the New Life Inspirational Group, the Saxophonist Mauricio Gonzales and others.
Following the show, a church collection plate was passed throughout the crowd and several people gave money and some promised checks in the future for the fund to find a new church.
The first contributor, Steve Conti, said he hoped his first check "would help resurrect the church."
Many in the congregation have said they would like to return to their roots, the church next to what was Sweetbay Supermarket (now Winn-Dixie). That was where the First Baptist Church held services and then later moved to the larger church on Sunshine Blvd.
At the time of the foreclosure, nobody at the church, including the minister at the time, would returns calls about the impending foreclosure, believed to be the largest foreclosure ever in Lehigh Acres. Records of the foreclosure are posted on the Internet.
Pastor John Fuoss said he had little information about the foreclosure since he was not part of the church at the time when it was forced to vacate the premises.
The First Baptist Church had purchased the large complex from the New Life Assembly which built even a larger church on Leonard Blvd., now the largest church in Lehigh Acres. The address of the foreclosed church is 507 Sunshine Blvd. The church that many have considered purchasing is the old First Baptist Church at 1102 Leeland Heights Blvd.
Currently, a Haitian congregation is renting the church, but the building is owned by investors in Sarasota, according to Fuoss.
Steve Conti, said as a Christian "in the name of Jesus Christ" he was giving the first contribution and urged others in the community, especially many of the businesses, to also contribute to the fund.
"We all in the community need to come together for Jesus Christ," Conti told the ministers of the church.
"I have lived here a long time - 33 years - and I have run a successful realty company and a successful mortgage company. I think this is a good way to give back to help these people buy a church. With all the people that I know, I hope they will respond by making a contribution," Conti said.
In addition to the two pastors mentioned, Bernice Mcgraw is the music pastor.
Vernon Angel, who presented the New Life Choir gospel concert said he was going to continue to work at bringing programs to the church and ask those who attend to give what they can to help buy a church. He said the whole community is invited to the fundraising programs.
The church office is open during the work week from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pastor Fuoss said anyone could stop by and make a contribution. If those who want to give, prefer to call, they can call 239-369-6141. Those who want to give may also send their checks made out to the First Baptist of Lehigh and mail them to 205 Joel Blvd., Lehigh Acres, 33936.
Vernon Angel said if others in the community wanted to put on programs or religious and gospel entertainment at the church, he can be reached at 239-691-7177. He said he joins in with the plight of the church and wants to work with the pastors to raise enough money for a down payment or whatever financial arrangements can be made so the congregation can find a larger church. In the meantime, the two pastors offered invitations to anyone who is looking for a church to attend.
"We are here for everyone," they said.