Vivian Pursell, a lifelong member of Norwood Baptist Church, said she can still hear the faint clink of hammers meeting nails during the church's construction and expansion.
As a former clerk, pianist, choir member and secretary for the church, she can still see her desk and everything around it. “Those were times that we struggled, but we had a growing church,” she said.
Slideshow: The final Sunday at Norwood Baptist Church
In its heyday in the ’60s more than 300 people attended, but regular attendance had shrunk to about a dozen. Sunday, about 80 people filled the pews on both sides of the sanctuary.
“If we’d had a crowd like this every Sunday we wouldn’t be closing,” said A. Darrel Murray, the church's pastor for 24 years and a pastor for six other churches since 1953.
About 10 members of the church shared their favorite memories and fought the urge to cry, and a lone sniffle emerged from the crowd every few minutes.
Much like athletes in a relay race, the church had to let another player continue its hard work, said Walter Bennett, the church planting coach/strategist for the Jacksonville Baptist Association.
While standing behind a lectern and holding a black baton in his right hand, Bennett said the passing of a baton is the most exciting part of a race. The incoming ministry, Mount Horeb Baptist Church, will continue preaching in the community, and memories will carry on from Norwood Baptist Church, where siblings were baptized, couples were married and neighbors became family.
Bennett said his son, Gregg, interned at the church about 35 years ago and was ordained to the ministry shortly after. Gregg is now opening his own church in St. Johns County and his own son, Blake, is opening a church in Jacksonville's San Marco neighborhood.
“You can count the seeds in an orange, but you can’t count the oranges in the seed, and Norwood has planted seeds for 91 years," Bennett said.
In a poll conducted throughout the community, he said, more than half of the respondents filled in the section for “no religious affiliation.”
“This community doesn't need another filling station or drugstore — it needs a lighthouse for God,” he said.
“Amen,” a man from the crowd replied.
Pastor Elijah Simmons of Mount Horeb Baptist Church said he is humbled by the Jacksonville Baptist Association, which helped place him in the church.
A group of men and women originally bought the church from Camp Blanding, then took it apart, floated it down the St. Johns River and rebuilt it at Norwood Avenue and Calvert Street. Simmons read a paragraph from Chapter 22 in the Book of Revelation, a passage that reminds him of the church’s journey through Jacksonville’s waterways.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.”
From the service’s start, the pastor’s daughter, Jeanne Murray, played the piano, first opening with “Brethren We Have Met to Worship” and “Alleluia.”
She said her father and his wife, Fran, stood by each other’s side through sickness and health to run the church. If people remember why they worship, she said, it’s not important whether they remember the words of any particular sermon.
Jeanne Murray said her father followed his passion despite health issues, and that everyone should follow his example by doing something positive for others.
“He has been preaching the gospel after a stroke and after macular degeneration, which has robbed him of his eyesight to read the very Scripture that he preaches,” she said.
She also encouraged the crowd — dotted with the faces of longtime friends — to uphold their values and continue worshiping outside the walls of Norwood Baptist Church: “This is a building. The church of God is not a building; it is people’s hearts and lives and souls. Serve God as a church. Wherever you are, bloom where you are planted.”
Giuseppe Sabella: (904) 359-4162