Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Keeping the Faith State Preservation Money Helping to Restore Four Historic Churches in Northeast Florida Is Saving the Heart of a Community's Moral Roots, Too

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Keeping the Faith State Preservation Money Helping to Restore Four Historic Churches in Northeast Florida Is Saving the Heart of a Community's Moral Roots, Too

Article excerpt

FERNANDINA BEACH -- Carpenter John White leaned out of the bell tower window of a 108-year-old church to scrape away loose paint as traffic rumbled past on Eighth Street.

He had scuttled up a ladder to reach the tower that had only loose boards over joists for flooring. Behind him hung a large iron bell trailing a hemp rope down to the vestibule.

White's two co-workers from Creative Glassworks in Jacksonville preferred working closer to the ground at Trinity United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach's historic district. They were putting the finishing touches on a group of stained and painted glass windows the company had removed, restored and reinstalled.

Time and a waning and aging membership had taken its toll on the church, identified by Fernandina Beach historians as Florida's oldest brick church built for African-Americans. The tiny congregation could not have paid for the $174,200 restoration under way on their 25 original windows.

The church building's salvation is coming from Florida's Bureau of Historic Preservation, which recognizes Trinity as a historic and architectural treasure.

Trinity is one of four historic churches in Northeast Florida getting state preservation funds this year. A major restoration is occurring at St. Michael's Catholic Church Academy in Fernandina Beach, and churches in St. Augustine and Green Cove Springs are slated for repairs.

But the money is saving more than the buildings. It's saving the heart of a community's cultural and moral roots.

Florida's Bureau of Historic Preservation is praised by preservation experts as one of the best programs in the nation for saving historic landmarks since it began in 1983. During the past 16 years, Florida has awarded 81 grants amounting to $4.3 million for historic church buildings. The state also has awarded about $123 million in preservation grants for other historic structures.

"It's one of the preeminent programs in the country," said Daniel Carey, assistant director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southern division in Charleston, S.C. "I don't know of another state that approaches that level of funding."

Nor does he know of another state that uses government money to preserve historic churches -- churches that are 50 years old or older.

"We see churches as historic resources that are important anchors to communities and neighborhoods," Carey said.

The National Trust, a private, non-profit group whose funds come from members and other donors, provides study grants for historic sites, including churches.

A group of atheists once threatened a lawsuit against Florida for using state funds on churches, said Fred Gaske, grants supervisor in Florida's Bureau of Historic Preservation. No suit was filed.

Even some ministers have been surprised to learn that state help is available for their churches.

"I could see where it would be controversial to get state funds," said Curtis Norton, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in St. Augustine's historic district. "For the operation of the spiritual body of Christ, you should not go to Egypt. But when you are on the National Register of Historic Places, it's important to the historic preservation of the whole community. Tourist trains go by. Horses and carriages go by. We get 50 to 100 visitors inside a day and we are only open for three hours."

Gaske said churches are often the most historic structure in a community.

"But federal money can't go to churches, period," Gaske said. "Our general counsel said we could restore what is seen from the public right of way. That's steeples, windows, roofs, facades."

State money cannot be used for projects inside the church, such as repairs to pews, plumbing or heating systems, or for anything that would make it easier for members to attend, such as a wheelchair ramp, he said. …

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