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Churches Satisfy Need for Convenience

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Lorrie Muldowney, County Preservationist
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Churches Satisfy Need for Convenience photo

Southwest Florida's unique attributes of climate and population has affected the way the community has developed.

One truly Sarasota County phenomena, an outgrowth of these dual forces, is the drive-in church. Developed to accommodate Sarasota's post World War II population boom, Sarasota's earliest drive-in services were held at existing drive-in movie theaters. Daytime religious services provided an interesting contrast to the nighttime entertainment there, a fact that did not pass unnoticed by the news media.

An April 1955 article in Life Magazine stated that "Some caustic observers took a dim view of the drive-in church, asking who has the popcorn concession and how do you take the collection, sell tickets?" Venice-Nokomis Presbyterian Church pastor the Reverend Robert White also had misgivings about his drive-in church, but he soon discovered its unique value for those unable to leave their cars, for the hard-of-hearing, and for those who, for many reasons, avoided traditional churches.

The Venice-Nokomis Church, at 111 East Firenze Avenue in Venice, was the earliest local church specifically designed to serve the driving public. Featured in Life Magazine in April of 1955, the Venice-Nokomis Presbyterian Church (pictured here) was designed by noted architect Victor Lundy.

The modern, two-story, glass and steel design was built for $7,600 and consisted of little more than a raised pulpit with room for the minister, organ and choir. Lundy went on to design other more prominent places of worship, including Sarasota's St. Paul Lutheran Church on Bahia Vista Street, Bee Ridge Presbyterian Church at the intersection of McIntosh and Proctor Roads, and a later design for the congregation of the Venice-Nokomis Presbyterian Church, now called simply Venice Presbyterian.

Drive-in services remained a Sunday morning tradition at Venice Presbyterian, although they were eventually broadcast on the radio rather than from upright speakers. Sunday morning services also included outdoor communion and a garden usher.

Other local congregations with early drive-in services included Pine Shores Presbyterian Church and Whitfield Estates Presbyterian Church. A publication prepared to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Pine Shores Presbyterian Church states that in the spring of 1953, such large crowds attended worship services there that for a short time they were moved to a drive-in theater at the location of today's open-air Sarasota Pavilion shopping center.

Whitfield Estates Presbyterian Church's first worship service was held Sunday morning January 4, 1954, at the Trail Drive-In Theater. According to "The Story of Whitfield Estates Presbyterian Church," prepared by Dorothy Walker, the theater's roadside sign from the Saturday evening movie still remained, advertising the movie "The Devil Takes a Holiday" on the morning of the first service. Minister Larry Bowman preached from the bed of a truck to the occupants of more than 300 cars at this first service.

As the church became more established, a small building was donated to house the church property and serve as a platform from which the minister could preach. In cases of inclement weather, although the organist and soloist could find cover, the minister would simply be handed a raincoat. This building was later moved to the location of today's Whitfield Estates Presbyterian Church and a glass-enclosed second story was added. The cornerstone for the present-day church was laid in 1956.

Although Sarasota's drive-in church services were first planned as temporary measures to accommodate growing congregations during its post World War II population boom, they have endured. The unanticipated benefits of accommodating the infirm, physically disabled and non-traditional participant has ensured that this unique Sarasota tradition will continue for years to come.