Canal Point Methodist Church still the town’s rock

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Canal Point UMC
This 1952 picture shows how the institution grew into much what it looks like today, nearly 70 years later.

CANAL POINT — The Canal Point United Methodist Church remains a focal point for this tiny western Palm Beach County community, much as it was born in the early years of the 20th century.

The congregation dates to 1920 and this coming weekend will host a two-day celebration of its 100th anniversary of serving the local faithful, their rural enclave and its agriculture-oriented community and economy.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Canal Point UMC
A 1930 photograph shows its expansion just before the Great Depression. The bell the church had then was used to alert residents to the great 1947 flood.

Their story more or less is an earthly fulfillment of the lyrics to an ancient Christian hymn, “Because He lives” — “That’s why we’re still here!” proclaims the flier that’s been circulated all around the area in the past few weeks leading up to the church’s big birthday party this weekend.

“The song’s refrain sums it up for congregants: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow;
“Because He lives, all fear is gone;
“Because I know He holds the future;
“And life is worth the living, just because He lives.”

The flier states: “This beloved Christian hymn, a favorite of all time, acknowledges so beautifully the faith and trust in God that we have witnessed here at Canal Point United Methodist Church for over 100 years! Thanks be to God!”

The celebration will be a daylong event Saturday, beginning with an observance and party at the Canal Point Civic Center that runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The special anniversary service is scheduled from 10:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Sunday, March 1.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Canal Point UMC
This earliest picture of the church that exists resides in the Florida State Archive.

Luz Torres, a 25-year member, has been heading up some of the efforts to memorialize the church’s and congregation’s history. She said that during January, a group of longtime members got together and produced a video for YouTube to tell the “Little Story About Our Little Church.” It’s a 25-minute documentary by that title, telling of “its sacred mission, devoted service, and continuing presence throughout these last 100 years here in Canal Point.”

Said Ms. Torres: “We had a gentleman make the video for us. And it just talks about our church history, and shows pictures and videos of people who spoke about the church.”

As for the rest of the weekend’s plans, she said, “We have some previous pastors from previous years to come to the celebration on Saturday. And on Sunday … we have invited other churches like the Community United Methodist of Belle Glade as well the Pahokee United Methodist Church, who just celebrated their 100th anniversary last year.”

Canal Point United Methodist Church was established shortly after the Palm Beach Canal was cut into Lake Okeechobee. There were no paved roads in the area yet, only rutted horse and wagon trails, so early pioneers, such as Jack and Maggie Pope, traveled mostly by boat.

Frances Adams and Janette Campbell, two church members who worked on and were interviewed in the YouTube video, said that Wayne Sears found in the Florida State Archives the oldest known picture of the sanctuary, taken in 1920, along with several others of interest.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Luz Torres
CANAL POINT — Members and friends of Canal Point United Methodist Church — from left, Janette Campbell, Socrates Jose, Wayne Sears and Sandro Vivas — work to produce a historical video about the congregation’s 100th anniversary. It is available for viewing on YouTube.

Ms. Adams and Ms. Campbell said that from all the information they have, it is believed the original church building was destroyed by the Great Okeechobee Hurricane of 1926. The video says services continued unabated in assorted buildings until the second church was completed in the 1930s. Although that decade is remembered mostly for the Great Depression, Canal Pointers remember how the congregation came together as a family to help all get through those extremely difficult times. “The new church building became the center of the community, and the congregation thrived,” the video narrator says.

In the 1940s after Pearl Harbor, of course, many sons of church families, such as the Maxsons and Wilsons, and even one daughter — a lady named Becky Kemp, who enlisted — were sent overseas to fight for world freedom, including then-pastor Merrick Slawson, who was called to be a chaplain.

After the war, in 1947, there was a major flood that affected all of South Florida. A levee (not the Herbert Hoover Dike, constructed later) had been built to protect the southern lake communities, the Glades region and Canal Point, and everyone was worried about its stability.

So the Canal Point UMC had its own early warning system: Men of the church constantly would patrol the dike during threatening weather, looking for any damage or breaches. One night a group including the minister found one, and he himself, a “very large man,” Ms. Torres related, fell into the break. The others got him out and then they all went back to the church and rang the bell in its steeple all night to alert residents that a flood was coming.

During the 1950s, an era of prosperity in Florida — Mr. Sears says somewhere around 1952 — that second church was demolished, the old parsonage was moved to where the church had stood, and a new sanctuary was constructed. Its cornerstone of the third and final Canal Point UMC was laid in May 1952, with much of the labor done by men of the church. Finally in 1954 it was finished, and a dedication was held.

The church building was never air-conditioned until the very late 1960s or early 1970s, after an economic boom had lifted the local sugar industry because of the 1959 revolution in Cuba. Those were heady years for this little church, through the 1990s and 2000s, with many programs established during its heydays of youth ministries that continue today.

Diane Gutierrez is currently pastor at Canal Point and Pahokee UMCs. After 21 years in the ministry in the Miami area, she was appointed pastor July 1. The Pahokee United Methodist Church also recently marked its 100-year anniversary, just last year.

“I have found the people of Canal Point to be so hospitable and generous, and very friendly, much friendlier than in the Miami area … it’s been a blessing to serve there and I know that the reason they’ve been 100 years is because of their generosity and their faithfulness to the God that they serve,” Pastor Gutierrez said.

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