Love God, Love Others, Make Disciples

Church History

Indian River Presbyterian: Fifty Years and Counting

“We are called this day, in reverence before God, to begin a great new work by breaking this soil and preparing the way for the building of a chapel and educational buildings to the glory of God and to the teaching of and preaching of His saving mercy and love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. We, therefore, dedicate ourselves to building to the glory of God our Father, whose peace passeth all understanding, and to the love of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and to the fellowship and blessing of the Holy Spirit.” ~ pledge undertaken at IRPC’s March 1964 groundbreaking ceremony.


Near the dawn of the turbulent 1960s, a small group of Fort Pierce Presbyterians collaborated with a missionary by the name of William B. Moseley about the idea of starting a church of that denomination within the city. Approaching both St. John’s Presbytery and the Presbytery of the Everglades, the group garnered the support of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and specifically Pastor Ryan L. Wood of Memorial Presbyterian Church in West Palm Beach. Preliminary deliberations resulted in plans for a meeting in Fort Pierce to discuss ideas for the new church.

On May 10, 1961, the meeting was held at the Fort Pierce Hotel with fourteen in attendance, including Dr. Wood. The assembly agreed to hold regular Sunday evening services with Rev. Moseley officiating when able, the first of which would occur four days later. The group appointed Marshall Dendy and Hugh Whelchel to the Worship Committee, and A.B. Jackson as Chairman of the Attendance Committee, with June Will, Mary Lee Strange, and Margarite Robinson assisting. James Strange and William Davis were elected treasurer and co-treasurer, respectively, and when Dr. Wood led a free-will offering at the end of the meeting, the treasury of the future IRPC was established with $40.27. By the first worship service that Sunday, May 14, 1961, interest in the new church had transformed the initial troupe of thirteen into a gathering of 36 at the Fort Pierce Hotel. In keeping with the goal of outreach, $9.00 of the offering was sent to the Board of Foreign Missions.

The next few months passed with efforts to organize the nascent congregation. On May 19, a steering committee settled on a temporary designation for the gathering, Indian River Presbyterian Mission, which would be used until its formal organization into a church.

A membership cohort of 23 joined Memorial Presbyterian on June 18, to later be assigned to IRPM. During this time, IRPM held regular services with Rev. Moseley, Dr. Wood and various laymen superintending the pulpit. A budget was created for the disposition of offerings, and plans for Sunday School initiated, with the first classes offered in July. In November, the Pulpit Nominating Committee and the Session of Memorial Presbyterian voted to call a minister to IRPM.

The Hotel provided a beloved backdrop in those early days in the life of the church. Preachers competed for attention with passing boats and fisherman casting lines into the river. The chairs squeaked, the piano groaned its age with every keystroke, and Sunday morning services always began with cleaning up after the square dancers from the night before. Despite these quirks, the pleasant breeze, suitable space, cheerful fellowship, and fond memories of picnics and pageants made it hard to leave the hotel when it became necessary to find a new meeting place at the end of 1961. Shortly after the arrival of the new year, IRPM relocated its services to the McArthur Hospitality House, part of the McArthur Dairies complex on Orange Avenue.

1962 was a year of milestones for the growing congregation. In addition to the move, the Mission filed Articles of Incorporation with the State of Florida in January to enable the purchase of property, an intention realized the same month by the acquisition of a manse on S. 10th Street. A few weeks later Dr. Luther L. Price arrived to fill it, presiding over IRPM’s inaugural communion service on February 1. His arrival accelerated processes already begun, and Indian River Presbyterian Church was officially organized on April 29. On July 1, 99 names were recorded on the list of charter membership, and the first of IRPC’s elders and deacons installed.

During that year, the church focused on developing a thorough ministry program in such areas as youth fellowship, men’s and women’s fellowship, Sunday School, Bible study groups, choirs, and Vacation Bible School. On October 28, Dr. Price was officially installed as the first pastor of IRPC, and on November 27, the organization of the Women of the Church was formally chartered with 43 members.

By May 1963, IRPC’s active membership of 124 was growing too large for the McArthur facility, and thoughts began to circulate about the need for a permanent home. With the help of the Home Missions Board, IRPC obtained a building site of 7.5 acres on the corner of Virginia Avenue and 25th Street. By November the ground was cleared for a chapel and two education buildings, and by March 22, 1964, the Building Committee members were posing with shovels at the groundbreaking ceremony. On July 26, IRPC held its first service in the new chapel, which was dedicated in a separate ceremony in October.

Thanks to the generous gift of Dr. Adrian M. Sample in memory of his parents, construction of the remaining buildings proceeded rapidly. The fellowship hall was designated as Price Hall to honor IRPC’s first minister, and the other building allocated to preschool education. In 1966, the church was fortunate to obtain an organ for the chapel, and its joyful chords lifted the spirits of all in attendance at the dedication on May 8. By then, IRPC had again grown enough to require the construction of two additional buildings. Both Wood Hall and Moseley Hall, named after the two men so foundational to IRPC’s history, were dedicated December 11, 1966.

With deep regret and gratitude for his service, IRPC accepted the resignation of Dr. Price in December 1967. During the search for his successor, several interim pastors helped continue the ministry of the church, among them the Reverend W.W. Preston, Dr. James Witherspoon, Dr. John Henderson, and Dr. Bruce A. Cumming.

In October 1968, the Reverend George F. Sowerby was called to be IRPC’s new pastor. His first service was held November 10, and he was installed on November 17.


The church had been growing so substantially during these years that by November 1971 membership had reached 334, prompting the establishment of a second Sunday morning service.

Unfortunately, a period of discord began to develop early in 1971 within the church family, stemming from what some considered an unorthodox style of worship encouraged by Rev. Sowerby. This difficulty caused a division in the congregation, and the issue was referred to the Presbytery of the Everglades for resolution. The commission appointed to mediate the issue suspended Rev. Sowerby in August 1971, and a subsequent decision by the Church Court relieved him of his pastorate on December 5, 1972 for creating schism.

This period of discord in IRPC’s history severely tested the bonds of fellowship within the church family, and many members chose to leave. In the midst of such distress, however, blessings rained down in the form of interim pastors whose leadership helped the church move forward. Reverend Leland N. Edmunds supplied the pulpit from September 1971 to January 1973, when Dr. Price temporarily returned to IRPC. His loving dedication to the church inspired the membership to focus on the future until his farewell in August 1973, and motivated his election as Pastor Emeritus several years later.

In October of that year, the Pulpit Nominating Committee extended the pastoral call to Reverend Paul M. Rose, whose youth and energy brought a fresh vitality to IRPC’s ministry. The church began to address the needs of the community, and by working together in mission became an assembly of fellowship once again. Although Rev. Rose’s departure in November 1975 rendered his tenure short, his healing guidance infused the congregation with a hopeful vigor that belied its brevity.

Too soon, IRPC was once more in need of an interim pastor, and Dr. Wood obliged the church with his service from December 1975 to February 1977. His administrative skills, combined with his inspirational and knowledgeable style of address, proved him a strong leader during the search for a regular minister. This search ended at a congregational meeting in November 1976 with a unanimous vote to call the Reverend Harold Page Williams to IRPC. He and his family moved into the manse in the first week of February 1977, and he was officially installed on February 20.

The leadership of Dr. Williams placed a concentration on expanding the reach and involvement of the church, particularly in providing opportunities for study, prayer, evangelism, and fellowship. One such outlet was Ministries in Action, a program that emphasized these pursuits through participation in small groups.


By virtue of the church’s dedication to the total program of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, individual church members also became more involved with leadership on the Presbyterial level, serving at the General Assembly and Synod meetings in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Two female members of the congregation also served as district chairwomen for the Women of the Church. In 1980, Minna Jackson made IRPC history by being the first female elder when she was elected to the class of 1983.
An exciting development for 1981 was a new church organ, purchased with $11,700 of donations by members and friends of the congregation. On the day of its dedication in February 1982, its powerful notes joined with the choir’s anthem in evoking tears of wonder from the gathered assembly. Two months later, church membership reached 423.

As Dr. Williams served on the Committee of Evangelism and World Missions of the Presbytery, it was also during these years that missionaries were invited to familiarize church members with the work being carried out around the world in God’s name. In 1982, IRPC began supporting two sets of missionaries, the Brandt family in Brazil and the Welch family in the former Zaire.

1982 sparked a series of landmark changes in the life of the church. In February, the Session named a Building Committee as well as a Building Finance Committee to explore solutions to the blessing of outgrowing Sample Chapel. A year after its establishment, the Building Finance Committee hosted a church-wide fundraising campaign to finance the cost of a new sanctuary, administrative facilities, kitchen, additional restrooms, a music building and remodeling of Sample Hall. The campaign raised pledges totaling $325,000 toward the final cost of $616,365.

December of 1982 marked IRPC’s first production of the Outdoor Living Nativity, starting a tradition of community outreach to the four-county area. Hundreds of IRPC members lend their talents to the Nativity’s iteration each year by acting in scenes, managing costumes, and sometimes even chasing a sheep down Virginia Avenue while dressed as a shepherd. Despite rain, spitting camels, and the occasional pyrotechnic overenthusiasm of local Boy Scouts, the Outdoor Living Nativity has always gone on.

Groundbreaking ceremonies for the new construction were held on April 29, 1984, and less than a year later the facilities were dedicated to the glory of God. Attendees of the March 3 ceremony felt blessed indeed when, seated on furniture largely donated by members and illuminated by sunlight filtering through the faceted windows, they were able to gaze upon the beautiful cross hanging above the choir loft. Designed by architect Robert Terry and built by Frank Miller, it was given to the church by the Millers in memory of Walter Herman, Jr. In a further testament to the generosity of the congregation, IRPC’s construction debt was entirely satisfied with Sun Bank in October 1986.

The congregation continued to grow during the mid to late 1980s, and staff additions had kept pace with its needs. From 1983 to 1986, Jerry Shaw served part-time as Director of Christian Education, and in 1985, George Gilmore was hired as part-time Director of Church Affairs. Also that year, Mark Manning was appointed Director of Church-Young Life Partnership. Richard Lystra unselfishly volunteered as the Director of Music, and by 1987 the Chancel Choir featured 40 voices with which to regale the congregation each Sunday along with the new Baldwin organ purchased that year. He was also responsible for a city-wide choir festival hosted at the church, which brought together more than ten area choirs at the end of the 1980s. By the tenth anniversary of Dr. Williams’ call to IRPC in 1987, church membership had grown to just under 600.

In December of 1987, the church elected a Pulpit Nominating Committee (PNC) to search for an associate pastor. After a fruitless year-long hunt, the PNC was dissolved with the understanding that IRPC would hire a non-ordained Director of Christian Education to become the ordained Associate Minister in the future. In June 1989 such a candidate was found, and James Bailey served in that position until his installation as Associate Minister at the end of 1991.

Near the end of the 1980s, IRPC was involved with the cooperative effort between the Presbytery of the Peninsular in Mexico and the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, which culminated in a visit by Rev. Juan Francisco Naal Canto in 1988. The stories of his experience as a pastor in Merida, Mexico sparked interest within the congregation, and led to subsequent mission trips by the youth group and various adult groups.
Meanwhile, IRPC struggled with the debate of whether to leave its denomination. The United Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (UPCUSA) had merged with the PCUS to become the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PC(USA)) earlier in the decade. According to provisions in the Book of Order, a former PCUS church was able to leave the PC(USA) with its property within eight years of the 1983 denominational union. In March 1989 the issue was laid to rest when a motion to explore other denominational options failed to pass.

Adding cheer to the congregation as 1989 matured into 1990, the Session began an annual tradition by putting on the Labor Day Picnic. For many years afterward, the ninth month on the calendar became synonymous with pine-tree shaded entertainment, bottles of chilled IBC Root Beer, and sticky chunks of watermelon. The next holiday season, the organizers of the Outdoor Living Nativity added another marketplace scene to the four-county Christmas gift, bringing the total to eight.


The young decade brought several changes to life at IRPC. The Bereavement Committee, which had been under a special appointment since 1989, was turned back over to the Presbyterian Women in 1991. Formerly called the Women of the Church, the PW had become an integral part of the church community, meeting monthly for Bible study, providing greeters at both Sunday services, and serving others through the support of such organizations as Safe Space, Victory Children’s Home, and the Duvall Home. In January of 1992, IRPC was able to find a suitable Director of Youth Ministries in Paul Johnston, who fulfilled his role admirably for several years. That spring, the congregation celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the church’s founding, adding to the festivities by hosting a meeting of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, and in May, Carla Mayo took over from Richard Lystra, beloved music director of almost 10 years.

After a long battle with cancer, Dr. Williams passed away in August 1993. One of the best-known American marriage counselors during the 1980s, Dr. Williams had published four books by the time of his death, including the still-popular Do Yourself a Favor: Love Your Wife. His flock, however, remembered him more for his comforting smile and cartoon-inspired sermons. Bereft and mourning, IRPC again began the search for a head pastor, a task rendered more urgent the next year by the departure of Rev. Bailey.
For almost two years, the PNC sought for the right match. During that interval, several preachers graced the pulpit, one of whom acted as Interim Pastor for more than a year: Reverend Donald E. Davis. Appreciated for his witty messages and barbershop quartet recitals with The Sounds of Sebring, Rev. Davis ensured that the period of transition was never dull.

Finally in March 1995, the prayer for a minister was answered with the resume of Carolina native Dr. Samuel F. Rutland. His soothing demeanor and scripturally sound yet accessible sermons offered a welcome breath of steadiness after the upheaval that distinguished the previous few years. Under his compassionate leadership, opportunities for fellowship flourished within the congregation. The longstanding custom of monthly Celebrations of Life brought the generations together for potluck casseroles and concerts, while annual camping trips reminded families of all ages that “Sunshine State” may not be Florida’s best moniker.


Each of IRPC’s pastors has provided a new emphasis for the direction of the church, and the Rutland era produced a greater commitment to the youth and younger generations. After Paul Johnston left IRPC in the mid-1990s, Bethan Faust was hired as Youth Director. Following her two-year tenure, Dustin Sterrett took up the post just before the advent of the new millennium. A prominent outgrowth of his leadership was the launch of the Mosaic contemporary service on Sunday evenings in the spring of 2004. IRPC had for years conducted two traditional services each week, and it was during the second of these one Sunday in 2001 that the need for a nontraditional service aimed at the younger, unchurched generations first occurred to him. For several years, the administration prayed about whether to start such a service and if so, how it would be structured. Finally, in May 2004 the first Mosaic service was held on Dr. Rutland’s last Sunday at the church.

His call to move on from IRPC necessitated yet another pursuit for a head pastor. A few interim pastors, most notably Rev. Dr. Ray Gamble, filled the vacant pulpit in the ensuing year, ending with the PNC’s nomination of Reverend Dana S. Allin in 2005. Drawn to his vibrant energy, the committee believed he would prove a dynamic leader in the drive for more community involvement and multi-generational outreach. Rev. Allin likewise saw the potential for a fruitful partnership in mission and ministry, and, in a prophetic first sermon, spoke on the same passage of scripture that Dr. Williams had used in his first message to IRPC more than 25 years before. He was officially installed on November 6.

A turning point for the church came 12 months later when First Presbyterian Church of Fort Pierce merged with IRPC, transferring both its members and its Hartman Road campus with the stipulation that it be used for community outreach. The added membership combined with the proliferation of ministry opportunities in the recent past prompted the formation of an Associate Pastor Nominating Committee (APNC) to seek out a suitable Associate Pastor. In April 2007, the APNC invited Reverend Bryan L. Wenger for an interview, and, impressed by his commitment to service, offered him the position two weeks later. A particular focus of Rev. Wenger since his arrival has been galvanizing participation in the Stephen Ministry program.

Under the Allin-Wenger pastoral leadership, IRPC has ventured increasingly toward gospel intentionality, generational integration, and community outreach. The long-standing semiannual FAST (Fellowship and Study on Tuesdays) Track tradition of dinner and six-week courses on aspects of the Christian walk is a favorite ministry for members wishing to move deeper in their faith. A succession of youth directors after Dustin Sterrett, including Caroline Cully, Nick Palm, David Hancock and Iley Harrison, has maintained the agenda of the Rutland age of cultivating young disciples through learning and mission. Under the direction of Meribeth Sterrett and Alicia Wallman, the children’s ministry of River Kids provides a comprehensive curriculum that prepares elementary-age students for a seamless transition into the youth group. Perhaps most indicative of the evolving church priorities, however, is the shift of the Mosaic service to the morning, which yielded greater interaction between members in varying seasons of life while enabling them to experience personally meaningful worship. Upholding the quality of this experience is Music Director of the Traditional Worship Service Melanie Shrensel, Carla Mayo’s successor since 2005, and Mosaic Worship Leader David Hancock.

In 2008, the IRPC session empowered a team led by Dr. Allin to explore how the Hartman Road property might best be used to fulfill God’s purposes in the community. After much prayer and research, the team decided to form a Christ-centered nonprofit with a mission of equipping all types of families for healthy living. Throughout the next year, the team researched potential community programs that would satisfy unmet needs, even travelling to Leesburg to tour a Christian Care Center regarded as a wonderful example of a partnership between a church and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Eventually, the future structure of Grace Way Village, as the project came to be known, was organized into two phases. Phase 1 would include four programs: Matthew’s Café, a soup kitchen offering free meals on Sundays; Hope’s Closet 4 Children, a consignment-style boutique where families referred by social service agencies could select free clothing; IMPACT Youth Mentoring; and “Getting Ahead in a Just Getting by World,” a course designed to assist the disadvantaged in climbing out of poverty. Phase 2 comprised the Family Transitional Living Facility, a shelter in which homeless families could live while getting back on their feet.


In March 2012, the Fort Pierce City Commission unanimously approved the FTLF project, and while the nonprofit organization technically does not belong under the IRPC umbrella, it still felt like a victory to the congregation.

The approval was especially encouraging considering other events transpiring within the church at the time. For several years prior, the PC(USA) had been taking steps to dilute the scriptural foundation of its ideology, causing widespread unease within the denomination. In 2011, this was exacerbated by two further actions: a revision to the Book of Order giving the PC(USA) an unprecedented level of control over the ministry of its member churches, and the passage of a new amendment removing the requirements of biblical faithfulness for clergy and changing the language of the denominational profession of beliefs to controvert the necessity of Jesus Christ for salvation. As these new provisions could be forced upon member churches without their consent, IRPC began a process of discernment about whether to dismiss from the denomination. On April 22, 2012 the motion passed with a 96 percent majority vote and most members who voted in the minority chose to stay at IRPC. The next Sunday was our official 50th Anniversary and the sermon that day recognized this historic milestone, but with so much going on in our dismissal process, the decision was made to postpone the actual celebration to the fall so we could have a much larger event.

On June 15, 2012 IRPC officially entered into ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, a new denomination formed by and mostly consisting of Presbyterian churches dismissed from the PC(USA). Dr. Allin had been one of the principal architects of the new order, and because of this and his firm defense of the truth of the Gospel during the season of denominational unrest, was appointed President of ECO in the spring of 2012.

Reverend Bryan Wenger became senior pastor in July of 2013 after serving as the interim lead pastor after Dr. Allin’s transition to become ECO’s first Synod Executive.