A GIFT FROM THE PAST: Hidden for more than 80 years, a church’s time capsule makes an unexpected appearance

By Mary Thurwachter

Aaron Strippel keeps an eagle eye out for changes in the landscape at First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach. As head custodian, he scoots around on agolf cart each morning making sure the grounds are in tiptop condition.

But on one bitter cold day last February, Strippel discovered something he didn’t know existed — a small, rusty copper box neatly tucked into the side of the church. He could see it that day because a cornerstone in place for 81 years suddenly slid off the building, revealing the hand-made container, which turned out to be a time capsule.

“It just all of a sudden popped out,” said Nancy Young, First Presbyterian’s historian. “What a wonderful surprise!”

“I couldn’t wait to find out what was inside,” Strippel said, “but I knew it wasn’t up to me to open.” He took it to Dr. Theodore Bush, the senior pastor, and Nancy Fine, the office manager, and together they opened the old copper vessel.

“Once we looked inside, we immediately decided, due to the condition of the items, not to touch them with our bare hands,” Fine said.

Inside, they found old newspapers, a sermon about the church’s great beauty and design, and a Bible, all of which they turned over to the Delray Beach Historical Society for careful examination.

“I was kind of disheartened at first,” said Dottie Patterson, archivist for the historical society. “The top had come loose and there was damage from insects, water and humidity. It was like little pieces of ashy paper.”

Her spirits lifted as she carefully sorted out the contents, piece by piece, often using tweezers, and realizing she could decipher enough words to know from which paper they came. Then, as she looked at archives of old newspapers, she found copies and had them photographed and enlarged on poster board.

“I got excited that I could re-create the papers and people could see what was in them,” Patterson said.

Among other news contained in the capsule was a story about how the historic Spanish/Italian-style church — the only church on the barrier island between
Highland Beach and Palm Beach — had survived the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Swinton Avenue, on the other hand, was wiped off
the ground in the 1928 hurricane.

The capsule was concealed in 1929, a year or less after the church became Community Presbyterian Church. It was built in 1924 as Gibson Memorial Baptist Church for
35 Baptists who had left another church with their minister, the Rev. Samuel
Gibson. By 1928, membership had grown to 135, but they couldn’t afford to keep it. They turned the deed over to F.J. Schrader, the builder and architect, and one of the church’s members.

The Presbyterians rented the church for $30 a month. Schrader, a devout Baptist, had offers from others who wanted to buy the building, but insisted the purchaser be another church. So he sold it to the Presbyterians for $19,000.

Contents of the time capsule will be on display during a special reception after church on Oct. 17, according to Young. Then the capsule will once again be stored beneath the cornerstone, although new items, as yet undetermined, will be added.

“It’ll be some things that will be of significance in another 80 years,” Young said.

Mary Thurwachter is a West Palm Beach freelance writer and founder/producer of the travel e-zine INNsideFlorida.com (www.innsideflorida.com).

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