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St. Paul UMC has strong foundations
Downtown Gainesville church survives tornado, grows through the generations
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St. Paul United Methodist Church on the corner of Academy and Washington streets is one of the oldest churches in Hall County. - photo by Erin O. Smith

For six generations, the Whitaker family has been members of St. Paul United Methodist Church in downtown Gainesville.

“My family has been (at the church) for quite a while,” said Joe Whitaker, a fourth-generation family member to attend the church off Washington Street.

Whitaker’s great-grandparents, grandparents and his parents were members of the church. Today, the 83-year-old man, his wife, their three children and a couple of grandchildren continue the family tradition of attending St. Paul UMC.

They are part of the church with a long storied history in Gainesville.

The church began as a Sunday school in 1888 in a home on the corner of Pine Street and what was then Myrtle Street (now M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard). For that reason, the church was first known as Myrtle Street Methodist Church.

As the weekly gatherings grew, the church started searching for a new location. In 1908, the congregation purchased a new lot with a building on Academy Street, or known then as Grove Street.

“The Episcopalians had built the church,” Whitaker said. “It was a typical Episcopal church — very dark wood inside, very high ceilings. It had a high pulpit and a low pulpit.”

According to the Hall County Library records, Myrtle Street Methodist Church changed its name to St. Paul United Methodist Church after the move.

The church remained at that location for almost 30 years until Mother Nature struck.

A deadly tornado destroyed the building and all of its contents. A few small pieces here and there were discovered damaged but intact.

“They found a pulpit, a few songbooks and a loving cup,” said Whitaker, who was 4 years old when the tornado tore through the town. “That was about all they found at the church.”

Those precious few items are now safely looked after and admired in a Sunday school classroom. A picture of the church as it looked before 1936 accompanies the objects.

But remnants of the original building can no longer be seen. The location is now an empty lot next to Harrison Tire Service.

Following the tornado, church members vowed to rebuild only in a new location. The congregation met at Gainesville High School, which was next door at the time, and patiently waited as a new building was constructed.

In 1937, St. Paul UMC moved into its new structure on the corner of  Washington Street and Academy Street.

The congregation, which survived the devastating and deadly tornado, prospered throughout the years.

“(The church) added on Sunday school rooms on the rear and two expansions,” Whitaker said. “And finally, they built the north annex and now the present church.”

And since the church knows firsthand about rebuilding its own foundation, it makes an effort to help other churches and communities rebuild from the ground up.

Last spring, Haney and 13 other church members traveled to a Sylvan Springs, Ala., to construct a new home for Earcy Tucker. His home was damaged by a tornado a few years earlier.

“He lived in a four-room house and three of them were pretty much destroyed,” St. Paul UMC pastor Calvin Haney said in an interview with The Times in March 2014. “He put a tarp over the one room left and lived there for two years without electricity or water.”

The church member installed sidings and doors, poured a cement pad for the air conditioner and painted the exterior of the house.

St. Paul’s leads one or two such mission trips every year. In the past few years, church members have traveled to disaster sites in Biloxi and Ocean Springs, Miss.; Americus, Ga.; Frakes, Ky.; Port Arthur, Texas; and Swan Quarter, N.C. Teams are typically comprised of 10-15 teen and adult volunteers and are usually coordinated with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, an international nonprofit that helps provide humanitarian relief after wars, conflicts and natural disasters.

“It is our responsibility to go help others who have fallen on hard times, so we try to do so when we can locally, nationally and, occasionally, internationally,” member Robert Clayton said at the time.

With that attitude it is not hard to understand why the church’s friendliness is what people in the community talk about, Haney said. And having members who grow up in the church is a plus.

“Having generations in the church gives the church strong roots,” Haney added. “We live in a mobile society and we don’t find that very much anymore.”

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