EDITOR'S NOTE: As the Chronicle reflects on 125 years serving Citrus County, we're taking one Sunday a month to reflect on how the county came to be what it is today and look at the relics and legacies of the past that remain today.
Inside the main entrance to Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Crystal River is a series of pencil sketches, a visual history of this 135-year-old church.
This coming weekend, from Friday, Oct. 18 to Sunday, Oct. 20, this historical church invites the community to help celebrate their 135 years of history and many more years of future ministry.
The church began in 1884 the way many churches do, with a handful of people and a hope of being a light to the community.
Founding members included Dempsey Riley, Mr. and Mrs. William Porter, Morris Mabley, Harriet Gary and Marda Evans.
The Rev. Washington Thomas served as the church’s first pastor.
Their first building was a simple wood-frame house on Northwest First Avenue near Northwest Crystal Street.
The second building was located on Citrus Avenue.
The late Annie Mae McCray, a Crystal River native who taught school at the George Washington Carver School, the local school for African-Americans during the times of segregation, was a lifelong member of Mount Olive and served as church clerk for over 50 years. She also served as a Sunday school teacher, president of the Woman's Home Missions Society and sang in the Chancel Choir.
The third church building is still standing and is the home of another church, Advent Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church, on Northeast 3rd Avenue and Northeast 4th Street.
A plaque on the building says it was rebuilt in 1946 by Rev. Wm. Michael of Ocala, Florida.
Mount Olive’s current location, built in 2000, is on North Georgia Road.
In 2001, as the church moved into its new, modern building, the pastor at the time, the Rev. Cecil Wilson told the Chronicle that the church had grown over the past century.
“Not only have times changed, but the people have changed as well, and this new modern building reflects it,” he said. “It’s no longer the ‘little black church’ as its been known...our vision is to see the church as neutral in color.’”
Today, the church is a mix of lifelong members whose parents and grandparents were part of the church’s history, and also newcomers who came to Crystal River from places elsewhere.
“I came up in the church,” said Deacon Sam Joyner, the son of Roosevelt and Annie Joyner. “I attended as a child, but I joined when I was 16. I joined with Winslow Thomas Watkins — we joined together.
“The church was our life — Sunday school, morning worship, BTU (Baptist Training Union) and then evening service every Sunday,” he said.
The Rev. Leon Thomas, also a lifelong member of Mount Olive, said the church, especially when it was located in the downtown area of the city, has always been a “community within the community.”
He said when they had baptisms, the people wore white robes and everyone walked from the church on Northeast Third Avenue down to the river.
“Dr. Osterhout had a boat ramp and allowed us to use it to get to the river,” Thomas said. “We did a lot of baptizing in those days because we had a lot of young people then.”
Essie McKinnon, who joined the church in 1960, said she thinks she’s the last person to be baptized in the river.
“After that we got a (baptismal) pool in the church,” she said.
Her late husband, Fred McKinnon, grew up in the church and joined at age 12.
One of the church’s newer members, Ted Holmes, who moved to Crystal River from Pennsylvania and has been a part of the church for about 10 years, said he feels honored to be part of something that has deep roots in the community.
“The fact that this church is still here after 135 years — a small church in Crystal River, Florida — and be able to say we’ve been here for 135 years says something,” Holmes said. “As important as it is to look at our 135-year history, what I’d like us to focus on as members of this church is the future.
“Historically, this church was called a ‘black church,’ because at one time people didn’t have options, but now they do,” he said. “Now we are a community-based, open church with people of different ethnicities.”