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First Baptist Church honors longtime pastor, celebrates new building
A passage decorates a wall inside of the new banquet hall Sunday at First Baptist Church. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

First Baptist Church on Green Street celebrated the completion of a large addition to the church complex Sunday and honored its pastor for a decade of service.

The new building, which includes a 10,000-square-foot banquet hall, is the major project of a three-year effort that dramatically has changed the church’s campus at 751 Green St. The banquet hall is patterned after commercial hotel and conference centers and can be subdivided into halves or quadrants, each with their own air conditioning, lighting and audio visual controls.

Also dedicated on Sunday was the Garden of Hope, which includes an outdoor fountain and baptistry, a columbarium for the placement of cremated remains, and a cascading waterfall. The garden was given in memory of Kathy Reeves Mathis by her family.

The church will hold its first baptism ceremony in the outdoor garden this coming Sunday.

The dedication of the building and garden were part of a long-planned event. However, church leaders had kept secret their plans to honor the Rev. Dr. William L. Coates Jr. on the occasion of his 10th anniversary as senior pastor of the congregation.

Coates, a tall South Carolinian known for his self-deprecating humor, fought back tears as Dr. Alan Culpepper, dean of the James and Carolyn McAfee Seminary at Mercer University in Atlanta, announced that the church had endowed a scholarship fund in Coates’ name.

"I don’t know what to say," said Coates in accepting the honors.

Later in the day, a Jerusalem marble archway leading into the new building was dedicated in his honor in a gift from Abit and Kayanne Massey of Gainesville.

The two other archways leading into the building were presented in honor of a former pastor, the Rev. Dr. Malcolm Tolbert, and in memory of the late Dr. Franklin Owen, who served the church in earlier years.

The new building, which contains 30,000 square feet of completed space, continues with the church’s Georgian style architecture. It was designed by Gainesville architect Garland Reynolds.

The building has one of the largest commercial kitchens in the area. A buffet lunch, the first official event, followed the dedicatory church service. More than 1,000 people attended the event.

During his sermon, Coates challenged the congregation to move ahead with the next phase of expansion, which will involve the completion of the lower level of the new building for use by the children and youth of the church.

He said that he is hopeful the church will gather a year from now to mark the dedication of the additional 27,000 square feet of space that is unfinished.

Coates, who has a master’s from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate in English from the University of South Carolina, accepted the call of the Gainesville church in 1998 after serving as pastor of First Baptist Church of Orangeburg, S.C.

Coates said he wants the banquet hall to be used for community events. A public open house for the building will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

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