PUNTA GORDA — A small church with a big history — the First Presbyterian Church of Punta Gorda celebrated its 125th anniversary recently at its sanctuary on the corner of Airport and Taylor roads.
“Through its 125-year history, (we’ve) battled all sorts of stuff,” said the Rev. Barksdale Pullen III during the anniversary service. “There’s been location changes, natural disasters, denominational shifts ... but through it all, the congregation has remained true to the word of God.
“(And now it’s) a new decade,” Pullen continued, “a new pastor, COVID-19, California wildfires, so many hurricanes that now we’re in the Greek alphabet, unrest in our cities, national, state and local elections ... it’s been quite a year but our church is still here.”
Pullen took over as pastor in January from the Rev. Stephen Mock, who served as the church’s pastor for almost 17 years before retiring in December 2019.
Mock told the Sun their congregation’s small church atmosphere has been part of the strength behind their longevity.
“It has helped tremendously and it feels like a family,” Mock said. “We’ve always felt like a family. It’s great to be able to be here (for the anniversary) and be able to see everybody; it’s like I’ve come home.”
Joan Hoffman, who’s attended the Punta Gorda church since 1992, echoed Mock’s sentiment.
“This is a family church,” Hoffman said. “It’s like family away from home and it’s kept us going for all these years.”
The congregation has worshiped at their current location since 2006, according to a historical timeline provided by Joan Byron, newspaper liaison for the church.
In 2004, Hurricane Charley destroyed the church’s longtime home on Harvey Street in downtown Punta Gorda (built in 1901), forcing the move.
“We couldn’t rebuild down there on (the Harvey Street) property because it was too small and building codes were up against us and we would have been at City Hall getting variances every week,” Mock said.
“Our architect said it was going to take years to build there and what we would have would not be satisfactory,” Mock continued. “This property was kind of God’s blessing to us because we were ready to give up trying to find land to rebuild.”
That wasn’t their first encounter with natural disasters.
Hurricane Donna caused extensive damage to the Harvey Street church in September 1960 with the bell tower collapsing onto the roof of the sanctuary.
A new church was rebuilt on the same location and was dedicated in March 1962. Additions were made in 1996, around a year after the church’s centennial celebration.
The First Presbyterian Church of Punta Gorda was started Oct. 13, 1895 as the Presbytery of South Florida of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
“The celebrating that God has done and is doing here in 125 years,” Mock said, “It started out with six Presbyterian elders from up north that decided to start a congregation down here that was a mission church up until the mid-1950s. It was very small but it still hung on and carried on.”