The Episcopal Church of the Messiah, near the heart of downtown Winter Garden at 241 N. Main St., was started 70 years ago when two local women decided their denomination needed to be represented in this part of Orange County. What began in 1950 as a small gathering of Christians at the American Legion Hall in Winter Garden has grown to the dedicated staff and parishioners of today who continue to worship and praise God.
Although the pandemic halted any big celebrations, the Rev. Tom Rutherford, who has been church rector since 1996, said a small party was held to mark the occasion. The West Orange Chamber of Commerce also recognized the church’s milestone.
Betty Barley and Dorothy Ficquette wanted to attend an Episcopal church closer than Apopka, Orlando and Clermont, so they and a few other like-minded worshippers gathered in 1950 in downtown Winter Garden.
A month after the initial meeting, the church moved its services to space at the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Sunday school classes were held on the front porch of George and Betty Barley’s house across the street.
Future church services were held at the Gem Theatre, the dining room of the Edgewater Hotel, the Community Building (Little Hall) and the City Auditorium (Tanner Hall) on Garden Avenue and, ultimately, the space the church has called home for seven decades.
Growth has been steady since the church’s inception. In 1951, Father George L. Granger organized the Women’s Auxiliary and appointed Barley as president and Ficquette as secretary and treasurer. The following year, Granger baptized the church’s first infant, Lester Robert Philips. Later in 1952, Mary Bess Girvin was elected the second president of the Church of the Messiah Women’s Auxiliary. The church’s second infant baptism was her son, James Steven Girvin.
Church of the Messiah became an organized mission in 1952 and incorporated in 1954.
In 1954, the church purchased three-and-one-half lots, more than three-quarters of an acre, along Tilden Street in the Orange Grove Subdivision. The new church seated about 112 people. The first-year budget was $5,653.50.
The first service in Messiah’s first official building was Nov. 14, 1954.
The Claxton Fruitcase enterprise began that year as a way to raise funds for the church building. The women of the church secured a system of sales and accounting and made this a successful seasonal venture, one that would continue for the next decade.
In 1956, the church bought another one-and-one-half lots for another expansion.
The first wedding service at Messiah was presided over by Father Edward J. Bubb in 1958 when his daughter, Carole Ann Ogden Bubb, married Arthur W. Steinman.
The first vicarage was built at the northwest corner of Main and Tilden streets in 1959. It was sold in 1967, and a new one was purchased on North Dillard Street that same year.
A new parish hall building was completed in 1963. Messiah became a parish in 1972.
A new education building was completed in 1975, and ground was broken in 1985 for a major expansion of the church building.
When the new facility was constructed in 1985, church members donated pieces for the church, including many items created themselves, such as stained-glass windows and altars. Individuals and families also purchased items — sanctuary lights, religious statues, crosses, pews and more — as gifts and in memory of loved ones.
The Rev. Tom Rutherford, the church’s current pastor, became rector in 1996. That same year, he initiated the Blessing of the Animals, a tradition that continues today.
In 1999, Children of the Messiah Preschool was started.
The first half century of the church was documented by longtime church member Craig K. Brown, who wrote “Church of the Messiah, Winter Garden, Florida, The First 50 Years, An Illustrated History” in 2000.
Since that book was written, the church has continued to be an important religious beacon in the West Orange community.
“In the past 20 years, we have ordained six people as deacons and five people as priests,” Rutherford said. “We have two in the pipeline who want to become a deacon. We have a woman, Laura Cook, who has been here since she was 8 years old, and … she’s in Wycliff Hall in Canada, attending seminary in Toronto on a full-ride scholarship.”
He said Cook spent two years in Uganda working as a missionary in an orphanage after earning her master’s degree in education and has just begun her second of three years of seminary.
In 2008, the Messiah doubled the size of its facility and built a new fellowship hall, offices, nursery, library and kitchen. The church is working on expanding its school for the arts.
To expand further into the community and extend its reach to more Christ followers, the church has added an online service format and even offered a Spanish service for about a year. The church adopted a Haitian priest, Father Soner Alexandre, and his family last year, and Rutherford said Messiah has had tremendous success with its Creole and French services at 4 p.m. each Sunday.
“We livestream one English service and the French service each Sunday, and we have 300 to 1,000 people watching each of those every week,” he said.
COVID-19 has forced Rutherford to make some changes, so in addition to the online presence, the church makes available a drive-thru communion on Sundays. He said he understands that some people aren’t able to leave their homes and the church will mail a month’s worth of communion to those who request it.
“In our tradition, communion is a big deal,” Rutherford said. “We’ve done all we can to get people to do the sacrament. I found an outfit that does bread and wine in a little … chalice. It’s sterile and hermetically sealed. We just got our 6,000th individual serving of communion; we go through a couple hundred a week. We’re like every other church — we’re looking and working and praying about how we can serve our people through this thing.”