n the early 1980s, all of Florida was experiencing a population boom and southwest Florida was no exception. The Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ and the national church desired to give these new residents options for their faith development and boldly began a program of new church development in all corners of our state. Over the first half decade, more than 25 new congregations were planted, and Punta Gorda was a prime location.
Through the support of both the Conference and the denominational offices, the invitation was extended to adventurous members of Pilgrim UCC in Port Charlotte and “new to Florida” folks to learn if they would like to establish a congregation in Punta Gorda. There was a positive response and so the Rev. Douglas Plaskett, ordained in the United Church of Canada, was called, and on October 14, 1984, the first worship service was held in the original Punta Gorda Isles Civic Association Center, which was located at the marina next to the current Isles Yacht Club. In February 1985, the first 36 members were received into the fledgling congregation, with 4 associate members.
The United Church of Christ church development office loaned the congregation $77,000 to purchase the 4.5-acre Aqui Esta property where our church now stands. As a historical note, the Florida Conference Minister, who had a home in Punta Gorda Isles, had originally wanted to purchase the property at the intersection of West Marion and Maud Street but was unable to do so. Imagine what might have been had that occurred: the site is now the Visual Art Center across from Fishermen’s Village!
The first service on the still undeveloped Aqui Esta site was held on Easter 1985, with the records noting that people brought their own chairs, eight people sang in the choir, communion was celebrated and the floral cross, which we still welcome each year, made its inaugural appearance. The portable organ used at the Civic Association building was hooked up to a generator to provide the music!
Throughout the first five years of the congregation’s life, financial support from both the Florida Conference and the UCC national offices provided significant resources. It began with 66% of the annual costs and diminished by 20% for each succeeding year. In total, $150,000 was received from each of these bodies, and does not include the loans of nearly $600,000 provided for constructing our facilities. We are here because of our fellowship of and covenant with the UCC. December 1985 saw the growing congregation move its worship to the Punta Gorda Boat Club building on West Retta Esplanade, which provided the storage needed for church items and a lower rent!
In 1986 the congregation was received into the membership and fellowship of the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ and began serious conversations about constructing a “real church.” Historical records describe the grandiose dreams of the people that later were tempered by the cost of such dreams. By the end of the year, the congregation had raised $30,000 for a building fund (with only about 70 “giving units”). The resolution to build, accept a loan from the UCC, and to undertake a capital funds campaign to raise $250,000 was passed by 84% of the members. Don Duer was selected as the architect and a symbolic groundbreaking occurred on Easter. Earlier in the year, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Fenner, a church member, was elected as a volunteer Associate Minister, a role in which he served until his death.
Rev. Plaskett and the congregation parted ways in the fall of 1987, and a search committee was formed to seek new pastoral leadership. The plans for construction moved forward and were begun in earnest early in 1988, with the first worship service held on May 22. Throughout the spring the search committee carried out their work, and on April 24, 1988, the congregation voted unanimously to extend a call to the Rev. William Klossner, a transplant form Wisconsin. He began his ministry on September 2 and served until his retirement in June of 2014.
It is interesting to note that the partnership with the Punta Gorda Women’s Club and other groups to provide dresses (and later shorts sets) for the children at the Baker Center Head Start program (now known as VPK, voluntary prekindergarten), was first undertaken during Eastertime 1988 and has occurred each year since.
Thus, the early years of this congregation have provided the foundation for the many valuable, life-changing ministries that have been offered since those nascent years. The congregation has been involved in community events and organizations, social action and justice ministries, civic improvement, disaster recovery for our community and disaster relief elsewhere. The congregation rebuilt after Hurricane Charley in 2004 and sent workcampers to Biloxi, Mississippi, to assist after Hurricane Katrina. We have built bridges between cultures, and we have provided a home for those seeking sobriety.
The Congregational United Church of Christ in Punta Gorda, under its current pastoral leadership of Rev. Michael Ford and Leadership Team, continues to offer an open, affirming and welcoming home for those who are seeking such a fellowship, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.