First Presbyterian Church of Orlando has been a staple of downtown Orlando for over 140 years. Surviving fires, hurricanes and the changing winds of time, the church continues to grow and serve the surrounding community.
When the country’s 100th birthday was celebrated in faraway Philadelphia, Central Florida was still pioneer country, populated by a handful of hardy farmers and citrus growers. Orlando, however, was already incorporated as a town. The year was 1876.
On March 18 of that same centennial year, 11 dedicated adults and their children, under the leadership of the Reverend Mr. W.B. Telford and the Reverend Mr. William H. Dodge, banded together to form the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. At first, the new church met at the home of Professor and Mrs. Benjamin Gould, founding members. Later, the congregation used the Free Church building on Main Street, now known as Magnolia Avenue.
By 1883, with membership reaching 105 and a full-time minister, a permanent Sanctuary was finished at a cost of about $4,300. This was a 40 x 60 foot building on the north side of West Central Street near the railroad. After fire razed the building in 1887, the congregation met in the Orange County Court House and the Orlando Opera House. By 1889, a frame building was completed on the southeast corner of Church and Main Streets, still the location of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando today.
In 1910, as the increasing membership reflected the growth of Orlando, the presbyterians added a two-story annex to the east for Sunday school classes. By 1915, the Sanctuary had been enlarged, remodeled, and covered in stucco. In 1926, a new Bible School building was erected at the southwest corner of Palmetto and Church Streets.
The church continued to outgrow its facilities and in 1951, when the church observed its 75th anniversary, a half-million dollar building fund campaign was launched. The new Sanctuary opened in 1955. Yowell Hall was completed in 1958, followed by Lee Fellowship Hall in 1962, the Reformation Chapel in 1963, and Allen Hall in 1966.
As in the past, the church continued to outgrow its facilities and downtown parking was becoming increasingly difficult. Early in the decade of the 1990's, a Master Plan was adopted to address these and other matters pertaining to a growing, diverse membership and ministry located in an urban setting. A multi-million dollar capital campaign was undertaken and the gifts of a generous congregation made possible the construction of new buildings and the renovation of existing facilities.
The Clayton Life Center was opened in 1995, providing expanded space for the Infant Child Care Center, classrooms, a gymnasium, and a fitness center. In 1997, the parking garage was dedicated. This unique joint venture among First Presbyterian Church, Orange County, and City of Orlando governments provided a long-term solution to downtown parking for church members, staff, and visitors.
The year 2000 began with 5,284 members and the implementation of the Master Plan continued. Incorporated into this phase, which began in May, 2000, were extensive renovations to Allen Hall, Yowell Hall, and the Sanctuary. At the same time, construction of a new Education/Administration building was underway on the property to the east of the Sanctuary. During the renovation periods, worship services were held in the gymnasium and rooms in neighboring downtown churches were used for office and classroom space. In the year 2001, the Education/Administration building was completed. This phase included the advanced technological components required for the new era in communications. In the Heart of the City, the vision of the Master Plan had finally become a reality.
In January of 2003, Dr. Howard Edington retired after serving 21 years as Senior Pastor. In honor of his years of spiritual leadership, the Education/Administration building was renamed the "Edington Ministry Center." For the next year and a half, the congregation enjoyed the leadership of Interim Pastor Dr. Paul Eckel. In the summer of 2004, the church called its 16th Senior Pastor, Dr. David D. Swanson, from the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Ft. Myers, Florida. Dr. Swanson began his ministry in September of that year.
Following 30+ years of participation in renewal efforts in the Presbyterian Church (USA), in 2010 the Session and congregation began an 18-month discernment process for a new denominational home. In 2012 the congregation voted to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), with Presbytery concurrence, due to the shared Essential Tenets of Faith and clear theological center the EPC provided. The denomination provides an accountable, connectional home for First Presbyterian Church that is evangelical in outlook, Presbyterian in governance, Reformed in theology, and Missional in methodology.
Where Are We Headed?
First Pres has no intention of slowing down. As we look at the changing culture around us, at the challenges the next generation of the church will inherit, we have become even more certain that the ideas which shaped our past can faithfully shape our future.