PARRISH (FOX 13) - A house of worship with roots dating back more than a hundred years gives a unique perspective to black history in the Bay area.
St. Mary's Missionary Baptists Church is the oldest black Baptist church in Manatee County. The congregation started in a small house in Parrish, with less than 12 members. Now, hundreds gather every week and work to transform lives to better serve the community and its families.
For generation after generation, St. Mary's Missionary Baptist Church has served the spiritual need of its members.
Reverend Dr. Fletcher Lawson Jr. is pastor of the church. He said he focuses on the words in the Bible and including everyone in love.
"We are a word based church and we are a church that shows a lot of love toward people from every walk of life." Pastor Lawson said.
St. Mary's opened in 1877, less than 10 years after slavery ended.
It was a time when Ulysses S. Grant was leaving the White House. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, and the first African American graduated from West Point.
"I joined the church when I was 9 years old," congregation member Aquilla Morgan said.
She's 74 and the longest tenured church member, having joined in 1951.
"They genuinely care for one another. You can see it and you can feel it," Aquilla said.
St. Mary's had humble beginnings. First, in someone's home. Then in the early 1900s, members built their first sanctuary. The church kept getting bigger, culminating with a new sanctuary 10 years ago.
"To me, the most important thing was to make sure that we have a place for the people," Pastor Lawson said.
That first priority seems to radiate through the congregation.
"I've been in many churches where nobody spoke to me," church member David Myers said. "When I came to this church, almost everybody spoke to me. It's a very friendly place."
"It's the love, the warmth, the feeling of just enjoying yourself when you come," Mazie Lawson, the pastor's wife said.
For a century and beyond, St. Mary's has soothed the souls of many - in good times and bad.
Alisia Adamson grew-up going to St. Mary's. She credits her faith and the congregation's strength for guiding her life and becoming a successful young attorney.
"I cannot thank this church enough for the foundation that it provided for me," Alisia said.
They celebrate the love they have for God, each other, and the house of worship that's kept them together.
"I'm just thankful to God for sending me to the St. Mary's Missionary Baptist Church," Pastor Lawson said.
Members of the church will break ground on a new education building very soon. Children can go there and do their homework, and the entire community can gather there and enjoy family-oriented activities.