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Central Baptist holds more than a centurys worth of Gainesvilles past
This display case contains some of the old sermon notes written by John Cullen Otwell, the seventh pastor at Central Baptist Church in Gainesville. Central Baptist will celebrate its 120th anniversary in January. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The red-brick facade of Central Baptist Church rises majestically from the corner of Main and High streets in Gainesville.

Inside the Goliath, multi-level structure, you'd expect to find hidden coffers, over-flowing with riches - and your expectations are right on the money.

The church's riches are of the non-monetary variety. Instead of concealed chests of gold bars and jewels, Central Baptist's hidden wealth is its rich history, carefully preserved deep inside the church in the Goldie Davis Memorial Heritage Room.

In the middle of it all is Helen Martin, the church's volunteer historian, who has been attending the church since she was a teenager.

"I just have a passion for history," said Martin, who is a retired Gainesville City Schools System teacher.

I started doing my family's history when I was in high school, so that taught me to really listen to people and preserve their stories."

Martin has painstakingly organized a three-room museum, filled with relics of the church's past that document its 120-year history.

The church began in March 1890 as Chestnut Street Mission and on January 30, 1891, became Chestnut Street Baptist Church.

"Miss Amanda McCants had a schoolhouse on the corner of Chestnut and High streets where she would let the congregation meet," Martin said.

Fittingly, one of the oldest pieces of memorabilia in the museum is the church's first minutes book.

"It starts on Jan. 30, 1891," Martin said.

"They started this church with just 15 members."

In June 1892, the group moved to land on Chestnut Street that they'd received from First Baptist Church to construct a sanctuary of their own. That building - ironically - was destroyed by tornado in 1903, just 33 years before the church would be one of the only buildings standing after a tornado levelled much of Gainesville.

Following the 1903 tornado, the church was rebuilt at a new location on the corner of Myrtle and Maple streets in Gainesville. Over the next few years, the church was re-named to Central Baptist and ultimately relocated to it's current location, after its then pastor Scott Patterson purchased the property in 1919.

Work on the current church was completed in 1932. Many of its original features remain.

"I think we may have the oldest baptismal pool in Georgia," Martin said.

"A lot of churches rebuild over the years, so they replace their pool, but ours is still the original."

Another original feature is the church's stained-glass windows, which were originally purchased for $122, per set of three, Martin says.

Today, the value of those windows have increased significantly.

"We had an insurance company come out and they told me that they couldn't give us a value of what it would cost to replace the windows if something happened to them. They really are priceless," said Rev. Earl Pirkle, the church's pastor. "People come from all over to study the texture of the windows, especially the one behind (the baptism pool)."

One of the most interesting pieces of the church's history is an old, wooden communion table.

"In 1936, a deadly tornado struck Gainesville - 217 people were killed that day and downtown was destroyed," Martin said.

"Central Baptist was one of the few churches in downtown that wasn't damaged or destroyed. They used the basement of the church for a morgue and this communion table was used for surgery - it was retired after that."

In the mid-1900s, Central Baptist's membership hovered around 1,000.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, we ran around 900 (participants) in Sunday School. Back then, these (surrounding buildings) were all homes, so people walked to church," Martin said.

"It's not like that any more and membership has dropped quite a bit. Now we have around (150 members). As the community has changed, we've changed with it."

According to the church's record books, in the early 1900s, church officials were "constantly investigating members for breaking the sabbath, drinking, swearing and failing to attend church on a regular basis."

These days, they've become more accepting of others' faults.

"We see a lot of people come in, from a lot of different backgrounds. We don't judge them, we just love them and let Christ do his work," Pirkle said.

"That's what church is supposed to be all about."