Cornerstones of Faith: First Presbyterian Church of Miami…before there was a City

By Leslie Rivera. In 1895, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and two Presbyteries of the State of Florida sent the Reverend Henry Keigwin as Synod missionary to explore the possibility of organizing a church along Biscayne Bay.

The First Presbyterian Church of Miami, Inc. (FPC) was founded on April 1, 1896, and became the first formal congregation in Miami two months before Miami was incorporated as a city.

FirstPresbyHistoricAt the time, there were other Protestant denominations as well as those of Catholic and Jewish faiths, however, as an organized congregation, FPC was the first in the city. Originally the church met in a tent which was shared for a short time with the Congregationalists. Later the parishioners migrated to a larger pavilion.

The pavilion was initially shared with the Baptists and was a vast improvement from the tent as it had floor boards, a shingled roof and sides!

During construction of the pavilion, FPC’s first minister, Rev. Dr. William Wallace, established a friendship with Henry Flagler. This relationship was to be fortuitous to the FPC. By the time FPC’s second minister Rev. Faris arrived in 1897, the pavilion was in place. Simultaneously, the FPC and the Ladies Aid Society were focused on raising funds for the construction of a church building.

Mr. Flagler offered the services of his N.Y. architects to design the church structure and subsequently he became FPC’s major benefactor. Seven months later the church was completed and began to prosper. (It should be noted, that while Mr. Flagler was a Presbyterian he was also a non-denominational individual and was helpful to FPC and as well as other early congregations.)

Illustrious Leadership Builds Congregation

In 1916, American politician, former Secretary of State, U.S. House of Representatives member and three-time Democratic candidate for President of the United States, William Jennings Bryan, was the most famous of FPC’s members.

Known for his commanding voice and elegant oration, he was also a devout Presbyterian and delivered his Sunday school classes at the FPC to a spell-bound congregation. The classes grew so large and became so popular that they were moved to the Royal Palm Park where thousands gathered to hear him speak. At that time, his classes were syndicated and the FPC became one of the eight most influential churches in the United States. By 1921, Mr. Bryan was a FPC church Elder and was elected by the congregation to a lifetime term. This honor had never been bestowed on any other individual and has never been since. Sadly, his powerful voice was silenced in upon his untimely death in 1925.

1930s-1960s Growing along with the Magic City

During the 1930’s and 1940’s the church continued to grow along with Miami. Numerous church-affiliated social and service groups were formed. In 1945, the Presbyterian Recreation Center for Service Men was created as a result of World War II. In 1949, so many young adults were joining the church that an organization entitled Kirk Keys was founded for the purpose of hosting Bible Study, hearing guest speakers, discussing current events and holding social activities.

It was the first such group in the city and became very popular until the 1970s. Another social group was also formed, called Pairs and Heirs, and it later affiliated with the denomination’s National Mariners and became the Clipper Chapter.

In the 1950s Boy Scout Troop (Number 387) was formed and sponsored by the Men’s Association. Girl Scout Troop (Number 67) was also formed by the Women’s Association. A Junior Church was added in addition to the Sunday school for classes of all ages.

In 1958, the church’s denomination was continuing to grow and United Presbyterian Church of North America merged with The Presbyterian Church USA and became known as The United Presbyterian Church of the USA.

1970s-1980s Bleak Decades

It was in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the FPC faced serious decline. Growth had slowed. FPC’s future was threatened. Financial problems led to discussions about selling the church property and using the proceeds to do God’s work. In 1983, a decision was made to sell the church property and to form a smaller church which would concentrate on local and foreign mission work.

In 1985, the FPC had a welcome respite when a vote was taken to remove the church from the market.

Mid 1980s-1990s Music and Open Doors Bring Renewal

In 1988, an increasingly popular “609 Concert Series” was underway and renewed emphasis was placed on community cultivation. The church’s facilities were opened for use by other organizations such as the Shell Club of Miami, the Dante Alighieri Society of Miami (now thriving in their location in Coral Gables) and the non-profit Business Volunteers for the Arts.

An innovative “Faith in the City” initiative was hosted at the church and the doors were open for those who wished to meditate and pray. Dedicated organist David Brodie restored and added pipes to the chancel organ and also installed an antiphonal organ. The music in the sanctuary was marvelous.

By its Jubilee year in 1996, the church was humming and its birthday was recognized with the creation of a Centennial Committee. The Church’s Centennial Committee worked in cooperation with the City of Miami’s Centennial Committee and Dade Heritage Days which recognizes Miami-Dade County’s historic venues. It was a busy year and Presbyterian Women in the Tropical Florida Presbytery held their Annual Gathering at the FPC on March 30th. The church was celebrating and times were good; however, more hardships were ahead.

Leadership Change Leads to Dramatic Tipping Point

In 1997, Mr. Michael Girolimon was installed as the eighth minister of FPC and this marked a time of significant change at PFC. He chose to create a “Purpose Driven Church” which was described in the book of the same name by Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California. Modifications to the church were made which included installing contemporary sound system and audio-visual equipment with the goal of creating a different type of music. Church functions came under the control of the office and there was a turnover in staff. The Board of Deacons was disbanded and after almost 50 years Kirk Keys was dissolved. Groups renting space at the church were eased out. The church was facing unprecedented trouble and trauma. The tipping point occurred when Mr. Girolimon denounced the Presbyterian Church (USA) from the pulpit on July 10, 1997. As a result, the Presbytery intervened, defrocked him and removed the acting Elders from the session. This made the church non-viable and an Administrative Commission was appointed to act.

Early Millennium Years Usher In a Fresh Perspective

Fortunately, by 2003, a new session was once again in charge of the church. The FPC had survived!

In 2013, calling upon its historical tradition of education, the church opened Key Point Academy on its campus. Today, it provides a challenging and empowering academic curriculum that includes enriched Italian and Spanish language programs in grades K-8. Strong academic and spiritual support is given to each child. The school encourages its students to maintain a healthy lifestyle by providing an organic meal program and daily physical education classes.

Also at this time, Dr. Christopher Atwood (Pastor Chris) and his wife Jenn, moved to Miami from Seattle to begin their ministry at the FPC. Pastor Chris is a graduate of Princeton Theology Seminary and received his Ph.D. from Wheaton College. Jenn received her M.A. at Princeton Theological Seminary in Christian Education and works in Christian education at the school.

A young, vibrant and self-directed couple, they have encouraged church members to build closer relationships and have re-established outreach efforts within the Miami community. They have restarted the FPC’s tradition of mission outreach and in 2013 traveled to Haiti and in 2014 to Honduras. A kickball team was implemented at Jose Marti Park in the Brickell area. A Bible class had been formed and food pantry collections have been established. Presbyterian Women, an organization open to all Presbyterian women, meets once a month. New member classes are ongoing. Attendance is way up.

It’s an exciting time in FPC’s future as a church that is situated in the midst of an expanding and changing neighborhood. As Brickell Avenue morphs into a “live, work, play” (and pray) neighborhood, FPC will continue to grow and change to meet its needs.

Looking to the Future while Documenting the Past

FPC’s history is so deeply rooted in Miami history that it has amassed an extensive library and archive collection. FPC is currently proposing a partnership with Florida International University for a possible joint venture. Thanks to the J.D. Mason Fund, which was established in honor of FPC member and passionate librarian Mrs. Jaquelin Mason, an archival consultant has been hired. The extensive FPC library and archives has been ably kept through the years by longtime member Nancy Smith who serves as church historian. The photo collection itself exceeds 6,000 images. •

Leslie Rivera is a native Miami resident who loves history. She is a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Miami where she grew up. For the past few years she has been the church’s Library coordinator helping along with others to preserve and share the rich history of the church.