First Baptist Church has stood at the corner of March and Albert Streets as an evangelical Christian landmark and a beacon of faith, encouragement and hope in Sault Ste. Marie for more than 130 years.
In 1889, Sault Ste. Marie was an expanding community with several established churches but no Baptist church.
A group of Christians held a meeting on July 22, 1889 at Dawson’s Hall - believed to have been located at the northeast corner of Queen and East Streets - and agreed to establish First Baptist Church in Sault Ste. Marie.
In Oct. 1889 property was acquired on the corner of March and Albert Streets and construction of the church soon began.
The group quickly grew in size and the church building went from being a spiritual home for its original 15 members to having space for 300 people.
First Baptist Church was hit by hardship when a fire destroyed much of the interior of the wood-frame building and its original pipe organ in 1933.
Rebuilding began and in Jan. 1934. Just 11 months after the fire the congregation began gathering in a new brick exterior building with seating capacity for 500 people.
A new pipe organ was installed in 1941.
Fast forward approximately 80 years.
Beginning in March 2020, First Baptist Church - like all other places of worship - faced a new challenge in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When things were first locked down we didn’t assemble,” said Lawrence Misener, First Baptist Church deacon, speaking to SooToday.
“We put sermons and music on YouTube videos and everybody had a link to that, and it was quite well used. When the lockdowns were being lifted and we were able to gather in certain numbers, our church building was large enough that we didn’t have to turn anybody away. All who wanted to come were welcome.”
“We wore masks because we are told to obey those in authority over us unless they tell us that we cannot worship our Lord and Saviour.”
“They never told us we couldn’t praise the Lord. They didn’t tell us we couldn’t assemble to worship, they just said that when we did, we had to mask, so that’s what we did.”
“We sang hymns but you had to sing with a mask on, which is very difficult.”
As far as social distancing was concerned, Misener said “our church is big enough. We had it marked out on the pews where you could sit and where you couldn’t sit.”
“We had a structured leaving of the building at the end of services. Certain sections left at one time, and then the next section was told to leave, so there was no gathering, no chatting at the end like we normally would.”
“We do that now and is it ever nice to be able to do that again.”
“It’s wonderful,” Misener said of First Baptist Church in the post-lockdown era.
“We have a number of people who have come back. Before COVID they left for whatever reason and have now come back.”
“Being a downtown church, we’ve gotten a lot of people who have come to visit and have stayed. They’re of different nationalities which makes us unique. It really looks like a multicultural panorama of who’s going there and I think that’s fantastic.”
Misener said he and his fellow First Baptist Church parishioners have no doubt as to what - or in this case, who - is the key to First Baptist Church’s longevity in Sault Ste. Marie.
“Credit has to be given to our Heavenly Father, God Himself,” Misener stated.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that the Holy Spirit is at work there. The church is not only still going but it’s growing in numbers and the core group of people that are there are attending because they want to be there. That tells me there’s still a purpose for First Baptist Church in Sault Ste. Marie.”
Misener estimated the church currently has a congregation of 80 to 90 members attending Sunday morning services with room for many more.
Over the years, First Baptist Church’s presence has led to the creation of at least two other Baptist congregations in the Sault, such as Bethany Baptist Church on Second Line West near Allens Side Road and - for a while - Parkland Baptist Church on Melville Road.
City Bible Church, formerly located on Queen Street, now occupies that east end building.
First Baptist Church also operates Rock Lake Christian Campground east of Bruce Mines.
First Baptist owns that property, trailers and cabins that are utilized in the summer months.
It is a camp for families with a kitchen facility and a building to hold services in.
“We have services out there and we have guest speakers that come out to it,” Misener said.
First Baptist Church has had many pastors throughout the years.
Notably, Pastor Duncan MacGregor became its pastor in 1947 and remained in that position for 33 years until his retirement in 1980.
He remained as Pastor Emeritus until his death on Sept. 7, 1996.
The church’s most recent pastor - Pastor Jack DeVries - recently retired, the congregation awaiting the official start of James Thomas as pastor in March.
The congregation’s evangelical Christian faith and invitation to the community to hear the gospel and learn from the Bible remain the same.
“All are welcome. We look forward to meeting whoever wants to join us for our Sunday morning services,” Misener said.
With files from the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library