Multiplying congregations outgrow schoolhouse
One aspect of life in the city of DeLand did appear to the early residents to be lacking: worship facilities.
The burgeoning population meant the community was rapidly outgrowing the use of its schoolhouse by all of the congregations that were organizing.
The custom of setting aside different hours of the Sabbath day for the various denominations to meet at the schoolhouse no longer worked satisfactorily, so some congregations started meeting in private homes.
As membership rolls reached the point where it was practical to do so, each denomination began to plan for its own building.
Yet, as cramped and confining as their current single church building may have seemed to the white majority, they were still better off than the African American congregation (the nucleus of DeLand’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church).
At the time of its founding in 1878, the AME congregation had no building at all, just a palm-leaf thatched arbor under which they all gathered for worship services.
In 1880, a separate congregation, Greater Union Baptist Church, was founded. The Bethel AME congregation was the first of these two African American churches to have a permanent house of worship when, in 1881, they built a small frame structure on East Howry Avenue.
In 1882, Greater Union Baptist Church also erected its own wood-frame building on West Rich Avenue (across from the present-day Volusia County government administration complex), in a section of town then commonly referred to as Bermuda Bottom.
For both white and Black parishioners, determining which congregation could claim to be “the first” in town was complicated by the fact that congregations often were founded before they actually had the funds to erect a building.
The two largest white denominations represented in town were the Baptists and the Methodists, and their histories are intertwined.
The first of these two to be organized as a distinct entity was the Methodist congregation.
They held their first separate service in August 1880 in the Rich cabin, with seven charter members present.
In October of 1880, the first Baptist congregation was organized, with 13 charter members gathering. The Baptists were the first to get their building up, even though the Methodists had been meeting separately for slightly longer.
The Baptist Church building was on the east side of Woodland Boulevard, between Rich Avenue and the aptly named Church Street, and a service of dedication was held in April 1882. The Baptists then invited the Methodists to worship in their building until their own First Methodist Church was completed.
Built on land donated by John Howry at the corner of Howry Avenue and Woodland Boulevard, the Methodist building was dedicated on Feb. 23, 1883.
Over the span of the next half-dozen years, other denominations would follow suit.
The First Presbyterian congregation was organized on July 2, 1882. They purchased a lot on Woodland Boulevard in 1883. However, they would continue meeting in the school building for Sunday services until 1888, when their own building was completed.
All the Episcopalians in the area organized as St. Barnabas Church on Sept. 24, 1882. Their building, on Clara Avenue, was built on land donated by John and Clara Rich, and its construction was managed by John Banta. The designer, Richard Upjohn, had become America’s foremost ecclesiastical architect, and was co-founder of the American Institute of Architects.
The dedication service for the new building, led by Vicar Charles Bielby, was held on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1884.
Over the years since this dedication, church folklore had proclaimed that the sanctuary’s stained-glass windows were made by the famous Tiffany Studios in New York City.
This idea was made plausible by the fact that Mrs. Bielby, an accomplished potter, had once painted china there.
However, a window restoration done in 2013 revealed that the windows of St. Barnabas had been crafted in a different New York City glass studio.
Roman Catholic worshippers were the next to build, when they put up a church on 2 acres of land purchased from John and Clara Rich. The Kilkoff and Dreka families were among the first members.
On April 19, 1884, the first Mass was celebrated in the chapel of the newly dedicated Saint Peter Catholic Church on New York Avenue next to the Rich cabin.
It is notable that this service was highly ecumenical in nature. The choir was composed of members of other faiths, and the organ was a portable melodeon owned by Hettie Austin, who was one of the seven founding members of the First Methodist Congregation.
— Ryder and her husband, Bob Wetton, live in DeLand, and have been active with the West Volusia Historical Society. Contact the Historical Soc i e t y at 386 -740 – 6813, or email email@example.com to order a copy of Ryder’s book Better Country Beyond. Proceeds from the sale benefit the Historical Society.