Hallmark of compassion endures as Community Church turns 100

Rev. Dr. Anna V. Copeland PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

In February 1924, the Village of Vero Beach – still just “Vero” – was only five years old, streets were unpaved, there were no traffic lights, the bridge from the mainland was made of wood. But the land boom was in full swing, Waldo Sexton had begun creating his iconic buildings, and the Community Church had just been organized, with 83 members.

Today, Community Church’s membership is over 2,000. Senior Minister Rev. Dr. Anna V. Copeland, Community Church’s 13th senior minister, sees the year-long centennial celebration as a time to express gratitude “to the visionaries who preceded us, who imagined a community church of diverse people committed to the conviction that there is more that binds us together than separates us in the worship of God: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things – love.”

The congregation’s first female senior minister, Copeland describes the church’s “epic journey” and the foundational beliefs that have made it a robust beacon in the Vero faith community and beyond.

A century ago, the founding members, as new Vero residents of various faiths, were seeking something different. They began meeting in one another’s homes, which they soon outgrew, and moved to the library (in the Women’s Club on 21st Street). Then, as now, the focus was on diversity, inclusion, service and what Copeland called “Extravagant hospitality. When you’re here, we are your church.”

The newly minted church’s first senior minister was C.H. Pettibone, who came from Colorado. During his tenure, in 1926, the first sanctuary was built for $25,000 on donated land at the present site, and a Sunday School was established the following year.

The church thrived during the 1930s and ’40s, and by the ’50s had reached 300 members. The second sanctuary, education wing, fellowship hall and courtyard were built in 1953. The sanctuary, now Grace Chapel, featured an altar made from a piece of cypress donated by Waldo Sexton.

Expansion of adult and youth programs and involvement in the local civil rights movement highlighted the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and included the congregation’s decision to affiliate with the United Church of Christ.

It was during this time that Dr. Julius Rice began his 18 years of ministry. He was, said Copeland, “an enabling force, spiritually and physically.” Membership increased threefold by the time he retired in 1993.

In the early 1980s, the sanctuary was expanded to accommodate a growing congregation, and included a Visser-Rowland pipe organ (the gift of an anonymous donor) and a beautiful stained-glass window by local artist Paul Pickel. When attendance outgrew even the expanded sanctuary, the congregation raised $3.5 million for a new sanctuary.

In the 1990s, the church’s first youth minister, Rev. Vern Swett, began the youth mission work tradition. When Rice retired in 1994, Dr. William Nigh began a “dynamic, exciting ministry,” that saw membership increase. It was then, too, that a more contemporary, youth-organized worship service was begun. Also initiated during this vibrant decade was a student mentoring program in the schools, and Rev. Carol Trax became the first Minister for Missions.

In 2001, Nigh died suddenly at 52 years old and, in 2004, Robert and Casey Baggott became Senior Minister and Executive Minister, respectively.

An education building was constructed. Sanctuary upgrades included the spectacular, 4,083-pipe Lively-Fulcher organ. A high-tech youth facility; a new community hall and the spirit-filled C2 emerging worship experience, enhanced by state-of-the-art technology and professional musicians, were also added.

When the Baggotts retired, Copeland came on board as interim minister, just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic. In-person worship was shut down. Copeland and the staff (whom she calls “heroic”) met outside, wearing masks, to devise new ways to carry on the work of the church. In 2022, Copeland was called to serve as Community Church’s Senior Minister.

Today, Copeland said Community Church remains steadfast in its mission, and is “actively engaged in serving our community,” focusing on seniors, the homeless, food insecurity and education, and identifying itself as “Community Church: Courageous, Curious, Creative, Compassionate.”

The entire community is invited to the church’s 100th Anniversary Celebration at 3 p.m. April 14.

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