The Episcopal Church of the Intercession first opened its doors in Fort Lauderdale in the late 1950s. But churchgoers dwindled over recent years and the church couldn't afford to stay open. Its members celebrated mass for the last time this past Sunday.
Reverend Fred H. Johnson Jr. was called to the church three years ago as a supply priest, something a little like a substitute teacher.
He was only meant to fill in for a few weeks, but he stayed after seeing he was needed. The church no longer had a permanent priest. Reverend Johnson showed up at a time when very few people came to Sunday services.
"A high attendance would be 30 to 34," says Reverend Johnson. "A regular one would be 15 to 21."
He says congregants told him the church was once a vital and alive place. But membership declined as priests came and went for the last 20 years.
And now, the church's regular seasonal garden has attracted Fort Lauderdale's Little Acorn Developments, which is buying the property.
"When I originally came to meet with the church, it was because of what's called the community garden," says Gerry Scanlon, a Little Acorn managing partner.
An acre of the church’s property is home to about six plots seasonally filled with vegetables, flowers, bushes and trees. Scanlon says he wants to preserve as much of that as possible.
"The area lies immediately to the south of Middle River, which is known to flood once every 10 years or so," he says. "The green area performs a very valuable function as a sort of absorbent for some of the flood water."
Zoning laws in the Fort Lauderdale area would allow Scanlon to build 60-plus homes on the four-acre church property. But he doesn’t want to do that. He’s looking to build high-priced homes while preserving green space.
And he’s not in a hurry to kick anyone out. The sale of the Episcopal Church of the Intercession property is set to close Friday, but Scanlon says the church's non-profit food pantry is allowed to keep operating for the next few months, while he makes plans.
Scanlon says anyone is welcome to enjoy the church property for now -- gardeners, dog walkers and churchgoers, like Valarie Banks Adebayo, who has been attending the church for 44 years.
She's the organist, she's on the vestry leadership team, and she used to lead the church youth group.
"Whatever needs to be done, I'm the guy," says Adebayo.
The neighborhood changed and people moved in who don't attend mass there, she says.
"The people that have been participants all their lives are dying out and not getting replaced," she adds.
But people are not just dying out. They’re also choosing not to come. Earnest Williams first joined the church in 1971. He stopped attending Sunday mass about six years ago.
He raised his older kids at the church, but says when he adopted two younger children later, the church didn’t offer programs for kids anymore. Like a lot of former members, Williams came back for the last mass.
"I just came back for memories and say goodbye to the church," he said. "This is the church when I came to know the Lord in my life and really know him."
Almost 100 people attended the final Sunday mass -- three times as many as a really good Sunday over the past few years. People filled the church’s wooden pews. Adebayo, the organist, says it felt like old times.
"Dynamic was exactly like it is today. This was it," she said. "A mixed group of people -- different ages, different ethnicities, different cultures."
After the mass, congregants met at the parish hall next door for refreshments. Next to the buffet, a round white table was covered with old photographs. Using both hands, Earnest Williams sifted through old pictures he found of himself and his family.
"Some I hardly recognize myself 'cause I was younger then," Williams said. He also found a photograph of his oldest daughter.
"That's when she was a little girl," he said. "She'll be 48 this year."
Adebayo says she's sad that the church is closing, but the time is right.
"This church has been on life support for the last two years, and we pulled the plug today so it's a new birth for all of us," she said. "We'll still see each other. It's not the end. It's just a new beginning."