The first service at Christ Episcopal Church, Christmas Eve, 1951

By Maggie FitzRoy

Holiday cheer rang out, and joy and excitement filled the air in Ponte Vedra Beach on Christmas Eve, 1951.

The first service at the new Episcopal church in the heart of the community was about to begin.

Dedication of Christ Church Ponte Vedra building site March 11, 1951. l to r: Bishop Juhan, Bishop Hamilton West, the Rev. E.H. Harrison of St. Paul’s by the Sea, Harry Fulenwish (sp?), James R. Brown, Mrs. Duffield (Hettie) Rowe, Edwin H. Vrieze, Jr., Albert Allen, Donald Topping (sp?), Fred Woolverton, Sr., Byron C. Crawford, Choirs from St. Paul’s by the Sea.

It would take place in candlelight, because electricity had not yet been installed. And the pews hadn’t arrived yet.

But after months of construction, the small sanctuary building was ready—a dream come true for many devout church-goers who’d collectively worked to establish a Christian place of worship in the then-tiny town.

“People helped in many ways,” to get ready for that service, wrote one of the leaders, James “Jimmy” Randolph Brown, in a Dec. 17, 1976 Ponte Vedra Recorder article commemorating the 25th anniversary of Christ Episcopal Church. “Many days just before Christmas you’d see 20 or 30 people working around the church…picking up trash, planting things, sweeping floors.
It was truly a wonderful, warm experience.”

“We set Christmas Eve as a target for completion,” wrote Jimmy Brown, then President of the Ponte Vedra Community Association. “The Bishop wondered, ‘Do you think you can make it by Christmas?’ We replied, ‘If you say a little prayer for us, we will.’ ‘Good,’ [he said], ‘I’ll reserve the date.’”

In 1950, Ponte Vedra Beach was so small that Episcopalians attended church at St. Paul’s by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach. But around town, many chatted about wanting to worship closer to home. So, one day after church, in the spring of that year, Jimmy Brown’s wife, Myra, decided to do something about it. She invited a small group of friends to the Brown family home to discuss the possibilities. The group included Bonnie and Ed Vreze, Hinkie and Rod Gilliland, Hettie Rowe and several others.

Before long the effort took off, with the enthusiastic support of the Rt. Rev. Frank A. Juhan, then Bishop of the Diocese of Florida. By the fall of 1950, the land, designs, and funding were in place, and they broke ground on the new mission church in February of 1951.

Randy Brown, Jimmy and Myra’s son, remembers well that first service, officiated by Bishop Juhan. He was 16 and served as the only acolyte. He’s been attending Christ Church ever since, and this year, in celebration of the church’s 70th anniversary, is serving as an acolyte again at the 8 p.m. Christmas Eve Service in the church and livestreaming on YouTube.

“The pews didn’t get here on time,” Randy Brown remembers fondly. “Mother had a beautiful rosewood table she inherited from her father,” which she donated for that service. She also brought family heirloom candelabras and made the drapes to go over the table.

The Rev. Alexander “Sandy” Juhan, first Rector of Christ Church, Acolyte Randy Brown, the Rt. Rev. Frank Alexander Juhan, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Florida at the dedication of an expansion at Christ Church in 1955.

Jimmy Brown wrote “It was one of the most beautiful services ever held in Christ Church. Both of us agreed…we talked about it often… that helping with the beginning of Christ Church in Ponte Vedra was one of the most wonderful experiences of our lives.”

“This little church—this big church now—was born on my mommy and daddy’s front porch,” Randy Brown says. “I grew up in this church. It’s been a big part of my life.”

And he’s never forgotten the first service, held Christmas Eve, 1951.