Ninety years ago on Christmas Day, Bethesda-by-the-Sea, the first church in Palm Beach County, the oldest Protestant house of worship in South Florida, conducted its first service in its new digs, a Gothic-style campus just yards from the Atlantic Ocean. Calvin Coolidge was embarking on his first elected term in D.C., and a plan for a numbered highway system had just gotten the OK.
Already, the church had marked 37 years of history.
Its first walls, made from wood that washed ashore, had been erected during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, a Civil War general who went on to open the nation’s gate to immigrants through Ellis Island even as Palm Beach’s 200 residents were “surrounded by deer, bears and alligators,” according to church lore.
This morning, that wilderness is long gone. The church membership is close to 1,600. And exactly who is president is no longer just a reference in time, but someone likely to be seated in its very pews sharing Christmas services in the years to come.
President-elect Donald Trump, part-time Palm Beacher, married Melania at Bethesda-by-the-Sea in 2005. Their son Barron was christened there. And Trump has attended services there as well – most notably on Christmas Eve of 2015 and the following Easter Sunday.
As a presidential candidate on those latter occasions, he came with Secret Service and metal detectors in tow.
Now that Trump is just a month from taking the oath of office, the spotlight on the church has turned up several degrees. Enough so that the Reverend prepared a written statement to answer the endless questions fielded both by the church administration and the parishioners it serves.
“For over 125 years, Bethesda has welcomed everyone who walks through our doors for worship: famous and unknown, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. We hold as a basic value that we are best as a community when we come together in worship with our differences, not despite them, not ignoring them, but embracing one another in the love of God. And within this holy sanctuary, differences in status or station in life matter not one bit,” the statement begins.
Founded in 1889 on the westward facing side of the island, the church predates even the town of Palm Beach by more than 20 years. The first rector, the story goes, had to travel by train, steamboat, sailboat, horseback and finally on foot, to come to the spot best described then as “east of Lake Worth” – that’s the water way, not the town.
Just attending church could be a two or three-hour one-way trip on foot or by boat, according to the church history. But in time the aristocratic class established the lake’s shores as a favorite retreat and Bethesda became integral to the lives of many.
By 1925, construction had begun on the ocean side spot the church holds today.
It is modeled after the Cathedral Leon in Spain. Its corner stone bears both the year of that groundbreaking and the year Ponce De Leon first landed on Florida’s Coast, 1513. The sun rises and sets though the story of Christianity depicted in dozens of its stained glass windows.
“It is one of the great religious institutions in South Florida, not only because it’s the earliest but it’s also one of the most beautiful,” boasts Harvey Oyer III, local attorney, historian and church member.
“It has spectacular gardens and specimen trees. It belongs to the community,” Oyer said. “ I know I take out of town guests there when I want to show them something special. I think a lot of people do.”
Fellow parishioner Jim Beasley agrees, “Everytime I got to Paris, I try to go to a service at Notre Dame. And I feel that way about Bethesda as well. The music is awesome. The organist. The congregation. … It’s held up very, very well.”
(The Bethesda choir and orchestra of 50 members in all fill the rafters and the pews easily at the holidays. Arrive an hour and a half early for the Christmas Concert and Community Carol Sing and you still won’t be the first in line or even the fifth.)
Be it the church’s elegance, its message or simply its geography in the palm-laden sub-tropics, Bethesda has attracted plenty of rich and famous people.
“Out of respect for each person’s faith, we will not comment on any individual and their participation in the life this parish—even public figures,” the reverend’s statement continues.
But some public figures are hard to miss. Michael Jordan was married there. Lilly Pulitzer and former Florida Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. were eulogized there.
For years, the church leadership reported that about half its members come from the island. The other from across the county. But in recent years that has changed and now leans slightly toward a majority commuting to service from homes outside the town limits.
And not all who walk through the doors are wealthy.
Indeed, the congregation’s work in the community is what helped it weather national trends in which church attendance fell and keep it vital, argues Oyer, whose family roots reach back to the church’s founding families.
“It doesn’t just operate for two services on Sunday. It’s busy all day, every day. Bible study groups, marriage and wedding planning. AA groups meet there,” said Oyer, who grew up in Boynton Beach and was drawn to Bethesda after law school, intrigued by his family connections and invited by friends who attended.
Bethesda’s Church Mouse, not quite a mile down the road, pays the bills for some of the church’s outreach. It’s a 4,500-square-foot second-hand store that pedals items with often gilded first-hand origins.
Still, as it approached its 125th anniversary, Bethesda was not shielded from the financial chaos that struck in 2008. The church was sent scrambling to cover a $1.25 million deficit, which it managed with staff cutbacks and asset sales, including the $1.3 million sale of a house will to the church, according to The Post archives. Now, administrators report the church is on “firm financial footing” with a membership that has grown in recent years to about 1,000 active households.
Are the Trumps among those “active households”? The church isn’t really saying. He’s certainly attended services, but Palm Beach has never been a full-time home.
The last interloping president in these parts was John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president with a summer home on the island. When in town for the holidays, Kennedy alternated between St. Edward’s Church in Palm Beach – about half a mile north of Bethesda – and St. Ann’s in West Palm Beach.
“Should we be asked to do so, we will work with the secret service to accommodate their needs for security, but we will not discuss those arrangements or plans, not even to confirm or deny that there are plans for any particular service. We are confident that any possible security arrangements will not make attending our beautiful Christmas worship any more challenging for those attending,” continues the note from Bethesda’s Rev. Harlan.
Trump was confirmed in 1959 at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, N.Y., according to a throw-back-Thursday post on his Facebook account in December 2014.
In “Great Again”, a book he published during his run for the presidency, Trump wrote, “I think people are shocked when they find out that I am Christian, that I am a religious person. They see me with all the surroundings of wealth, so they sometimes don’t associate that with being religious. That’s not accurate.”
Perhaps that’s why most of the speculation circulating early in the week had little to do with whether Trump would show for a service at Bethesda and more to do with when. And to that question, the Rev. Harlan had this simple bit of advice that should not surprise anyone who attends the church with seating for only 500 in the main hall and that relies heavily on street parking: Arrive early.
1889: The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea is founded as an Episcopal mission in a schoolhouse on the shores of Lake Worth. That’s four years before Henry Flagler visits and 22 years before the Town of Palm Beach incorporates. The church is built of driftwood and seats 100.
1894: The church constructs a larger building, still on the west-facing shore of the island. The building later becomes a private residence that still stands.
1925: Construction begins on the Gothic-style church that now stands at 141 S. County Road in Palm Beach. Modeled after the Cathedral at Leon in Spain, the cornerstone bears the date 1513 to commemorate Ponce de Leon’s landing in Florida and inside the stone sits a letter from the King of Spain.
The stained glass: The church is home to paintings, sculptures and dozens of stained glass windows. Three such windows, called the Te Deum, tower over the high alter. They were made in England and literally shipped to Palm Beach in 1940, during World War II. To ensure their safety, each was ferried to the U.S. on a different ship.
The fish: Japanese koi live in the reflecting pool in the Cluett Gardens, at the back of the church’s property.
The wise men and the manger: Every year, weeks before Christmas, the church unpacks its collection of life-size characters including the wise men, Mary and Joseph, camels and sheep. The characters begin at the far ends of the property and are moved closer daily until they all arrive by Christmas Eve at the manger.
They stopped by:
President Gerald Ford stopped by Bethesda in February 1976 ahead of the Florida primary. The following November he lost to Jimmy Carter.
Donald Trump married Melania there in 2005 at a ceremony attended by Barbara Walters, Simon Cowell, Billy Joel and Bill and Hillary Clinton – after he was president but before she was Secretary of State.
Trump has been there more recently for Christmas Eve 2015 and Easter 2016.
Barron Trump was christened there on Dec. 8, 2006.
Former Florida Gov. Claude Kirk’s funeral was conducted at Bethesda, Oct. 3, 2011.
Lilly Pulitzer, Palm Beach socialite turned fashion designer, was eulogized at the church, April 11, 2013.
Michael Jordan married Miami-born Yvette Prieto there April 27, 2013.
They’re regulars: The church counts about 1,000 families as active members of the congregation. Just over half don’t live on the island but travel from around the county to get to services, administrators report.
Source: Bethesda-by-the-Sea and Palm Beach Post archives.