Posted: Saturday, September 15th 2012 at 9:01am
FBC: Remembering, celebrating, looking ahead
By Ken Stanford Staff
The church as it stands today. (Pictures are from church archives or the Northeast Georgia History Center or Jo Cosper's personal collection. All photos furnished to AccessNorthGa.com by Jo Cosper.)
GAINESVILLE - Members of the Gainesville's First Baptist Church are marking the 50th anniversary in the church's current location on Green Street by remembering, celebrating and looking ahead.
A special homecoming service Sunday officially commemorates the anniversary.
The present site on Green Street is actually the fifth building that has housed the First Baptist congregation, according to Senior Pastor Dr. Bill Coates.
"The fourth building, the one that burned in the 1960 fire, and was located on the corner of Green and East Washington, was dedicated on September 2, 1909," Dr. Coates says. "It was a beautiful domed structure, was significantly damaged in the 1936 tornado, was afterward fully repaired, and lost completely in the fire February 12, 1960. So it is ironic: that building survived 50 years, and today we celebrate 50 years in the current building."
The current property's purchase was authorized by the church on March 27, 1960. However, ten years earlier, during the ministry of Dr. Franklin Owen, an option had been secured on this site (the Herbert Dean property) and 14 acres purchased soon thereafter in anticipation of the church's growth.
As for the cause of the fire, Dr. Coates said it is known that Dr. Warner Fusselle said in his sermon the Sunday before the fire that he wanted "to see this church on fire for the Lord." Some speculate, Coates added, that a mentally unstable man in the church took the words literally and set the fire.
"The fire had two sources, actually, one in the basement and one in the loft on the other side of the building," he said. The official church history simply states: "The presence of two separate fires, a fire door propped open and a history of three previous fires labeled by (firemen) as 'definitely incendiary in origin' indicate that this terrible fire was indeed a 'holocaust,' a 'sacrifice' by a sick mind."
The old building could seat 1,100. The current sanctuary seats 1,400 and the chapel seats 300. The old building had only the sanctuary and Sunday School buildings and offices, no chapel, no Boy Scout buildings.
When the church occupied the fourth building in 1909, the membership was 702. The records of the church during Dr. Owen's tenure and the early Fusselle years were lost in the fire, so accurate numbers are not known; but the membership was likely around 1,400 in 1962, according to Dr. Coates. Today's membership is 3,312.
According to Dr. Coates, the membership includes about 300 who were a part of the church at the time of the fire.
"Our oldest member is Lessie Smithgall, 101, whose husband, Charles, was on the building committee. Not far behind is Mary Cleveland, 98, whose husband, Ralph, was also on the committee."
Others include Jo Cosper and Mike Banks. (See below)
THE NEW VS. THE OLD
The physical structure today is vastly different since 1962, Dr. Coates said.
"The sanctuary and chapel (were) totally remodeled ten years ago and a balcony added. Nearly all Sunday School spaces have been renewed, much of it altered and expanded. The scout cabins were added in the early 1960s. The Family Life Center was completed in December 1984. The old Dean home became the HALT House (a ministry of the church for those in the community struggling with addictions) in the 1980s as well.
Dr. Coates says that in 2003 the church undertook the first of two extremely ambitious campaigns.
"The Third Century Campaign resulted in the beautiful and spacious Banquet Hall in 2008 which is now used by the entire community and is most essential to the church's many ministries.
In 2009, the Our Faith Our Future campaign finished the facility with the state-of-the-art youth space and the new First Baptist Church Dayschool which serves 170 infants through pre-kindergarten.
This campaign also renovated the existing children's wing which has greatly benefited and accelerated the growth of our children's ministry. Landscape features were also added (the Hope Garden with an outdoor baptismal area and a columbarium, offering burial spaces on church property for the first time in the history of the church, as well as a waterfall). In 2011, new landscaping was completed in front of the sanctuary."
Dr. Coates says a new music suite is planned for the future but will have to wait until the church's current debt is fully retired.
In addition, "We have a Vietnamese congregation and a Hispanic congregation with plans to expand the Hispanic church sometime in the future. We have also recently begun an afterschool program for Hispanic students which we anticipate will grow.
Our greatest expansion is planned in missions here and beyond. First Baptist is particularly excited to be involved in joint worship and joint ministries with First United Methodist, St. Paul United Methodist, First Presbyterian, Grace Episcopal, and St. John Baptist and Antioch Baptist."
Dr. Coates says he and his family are "enormously blessed to belong to this, the best church family I know of anywhere. The history of this church is 182 years long, but it's the future that really excites me. It is endless and full of promise and hope - because the real church is never contained in a building which can be destroyed.
The heart of the church is in the heart of the people who have been moved by the heart of God to assemble together, minister together, worship together in the name of Jesus Christ, the great revelation of who God is. There is no doubt that our best days are ahead, and I look with wonder and faith at what God will do through these faithful and loving people. I ask God's blessings upon this church and upon all the good churches of our extraordinary community."
JO COSPER REMEMBERS
Longtime church member Jo Cosper and her late husband, Carl, were at home when they heard about the fire but with two small children, they elected to stay at home rather than go downtown.
"The sanctuary was a total loss, but the Sunday School building and other downtown buildings were saved," Cosper, who was 26 at the time, recalled a few days ago.
Services the Sunday after the fire were held in Pearce Auditorium at Brenau University. Cosper said she and her family did not attend because she and her husband were not sure if "nursery facilities" would be provided but it was broadcast, as usual, on WGGA (now 1240 ESPN Radio).
"Dr. Fusselle's sermon title was 'From Ashes to Advance," Cosper said. "He is quoted as saying 'I consider myself the most fortunate pastor in the world, for I have the most wonderful congregation in the world...the First baptist Church of Gainesville is still on fire. It is on fire 'spiritually' and will never go out...we will tithe more, witness more, work harder than ever..."
Before the fire, the church expansion committee had already secured an option to purchase the Herbert H. Dean property on Green Street, said Cosper, who serves on the church's history committee. "After a massive building fund drive, the groundbreaking ceremony was held on June 4, 1961. The first service in our current church was held on September 16, 1962...yes, we were there."
After Dr. Bill Coates became pastor, the sanctuary and chapel were renovated and the 3rd Century Construction was from 2001 - 20008. The Banquet Hall and Hope Garden Dedication was August 17, 2008.
MIKE BANKS REMEMBERS
Mike Banks, another longtime member of the church, also vividly recalls the night the church burned and the growth of the church since then.
"I was in junior high and (was at) an exhibition-type (basketball game) featuring some well known athletes - including Roger Staubach (a Heisman Trophy winner as a member of the Naval Academy's football team) who was stationed at the Navy Supply Corps School in Athens," Banks said.
He recalled that word began circulating in the Gainesville High School gym that the church was on fire and when he went outside with a friend, the late John Parks, to meet Parks' dad who had come to pick them up, they could see the glow of the fire.
"Mr. Parks owned the Jackson Building in downtown Gainesville, right near the church building and he was concerned that sparks from the fire might jump across the Federal Building and land on the roof of the Jackson Building. I remember he hauled a fire extinguisher up to the roof and we (watched) the firemen battle the blaze from there."
Banks remembers how the church "rebounded," holding Sunday School in the portion of the building not destroyed, and then the congregation walking or driving two blocks east to Pearce Auditorium (at Brenau University) for morning worship.
"I was in high school by the time we moved into the new facilities and I remember that day when we held the first services there. Members of Boy Scout Troop 26, sponsored by the church, served as parking attendants and guides that first day and the growth of the church has continued with new facilities added and renovation of current areas continuing."
Link: Historical timeline of First Baptist Church of Gainesville
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