First Methodist Church holds first services in rebuilt sanctuary

Published: Nov. 19, 2020 at 10:44 PM CST
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One local church reached a long-awaited milestone this week. Holding services in a newly refurbished sanctuary more than two years after Hurricane Michael caused the walls to come down. The congregation and pastor believe it’s not only a positive for them but for the entire Bay County faith community.

First United Methodist Church of Panama City has been a mainstay in our community for 110 years.

In 1949 the old church building caught fire. Almost 30 years later a newer sanctuary was also razed by a fire. Then 40 years later on October 10, 2018, yet another sanctuary took a hit. This time from category 5 Hurricane Michael.

“The bell tower had fallen through the sanctuary,” said Music Minister Marvin Miller. “It had crushed some of our stained glass windows, we lost our pipe organ, lost our piano.”

Now, after more than two years hymns of praise are once again resounding through the air and sermons of faith are once again being heard.

“It really is a culmination of a tremendous amount of work and perseverance on the part of the church,” said senior pastor Dr. Jeremy Pridgeon. “A lot of people would have thought that this building needed to come down.”

Dr. Pridgeon also said it’s so much more than just a building it’s a place where people meet God and memories are made.

“This is where they were married, this is where their children were baptized, this is where their loved ones were buried and so many tender moments of life are experienced here and our worship is often tied to space so we’re incredibly grateful to gather here in the sanctuary again,” said Dr. Pridgeon.

A hurricane isn’t the way the church had planned to make changes but they did take advantage of it.

“In the redesign, we were really making hundred-year decisions,” said Dr. Pridgeon. “The previous sanctuary had been built in the thinking of what would have been the best of worship in the 1950s and 60s in the Methodist tradition with an elevated loft and very kind of awe-inspiring type of setting. But it was also limited in what we could do here in terms of mobility and configuration.”

While the building still has the traditional feel of stained glass windows and a pipe organ, everything is now versatile and movable, so there is room for growth.

“The new space has been designed with the hopes that future generations will be able to use it based on the needs that will emerge in the life of the church long after we’re gone,” said Dr. Pridgeon.

The first services in the newly refurbished sanctuary were considered a sort of soft opening. Still, long time members couldn’t wait to see the building for the first time since 2018.

“It’s a very emotional thing to come back to the place where your family has been for years, your children were dedicated there, baptized. It just brings back a flood of precious memories,” said member Larry Presley.

“It’s beautiful, the sanctuary is lovely, the stained glass windows have been restored. It’s just absolutely beautiful and what a blessing,” said member Ann Logue.

“You can feel the power of the Holy Spirit just by deciding you’re gonna come through that door,” said Presley.

Many other churches throughout Northwest Florida are still working to rebuild but Dr. Pridgeon hopes the reopening of this sanctuary is a sign of hope for the rest of the community.

“We’re not the first to rebuild and we won’t be the last,” said Dr. Pridgeon. “There is still tremendous work to do, but this is a point along the way that hopefully will provide some sense of encouragement that things are getting better, that new things are emerging from the destruction and that there’s a very promising future for all of us here in Panama City and Bay County.”

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