Possible suit could halt 165-year-old church’s demolition

It was damaged in 2019 by a tornado, but some aren’t ready to let go of the historic building

Controversy over demolition of historic Wetumpka church

WETUMPKA, Ala. (WSFA) - A potential showdown could soon play out in Wetumpka and it surrounds the fate of a church’s historic sanctuary. One side wants to save the antebellum brick building. The other side says it considered saving it, but feels reality has won out.

With its foundation laid in the 1840s and completion done in 1852, the old First Baptist Church sanctuary has stood the test of time. It has survived the Civil War, historic flooding, and gave comfort to worshipers praying for the end of two world wars. [See historic photos here.]

But then, in January 2019, the devastation of an EF-2 tornado left its jagged calling card.

GALLERY: Damage from 2019 Wetumpka tornado

The church’s brand new student center, located next door, as well as the historic Presbyterian church across the street, took direct hits and were destroyed.

But even though its roof and steeple were ripped off, the more than 165-year-old sanctuary continued standing with little outward signs of damage. Not even a stain glassed window was broken.

The outside of the historic Wetumpka First Baptist Church sanctuary doesn't appear to show much damage, other than a temporary roof. But the church says mold, water damage, and repair costs leave it with no choice but to tear it down.
The outside of the historic Wetumpka First Baptist Church sanctuary doesn't appear to show much damage, other than a temporary roof. But the church says mold, water damage, and repair costs leave it with no choice but to tear it down. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

The building appeared to have been spared. But with time, that appears to have changed.

The insurance company estimates "67 percent of the value of the building was damaged,” said First Baptist Church of Wetumpka Rebuild Committee Chairman Keith Cantley.

The church says after the roof was ripped off, mold started to grow inside and support beams were weakened. Those were among issues that have brought about a hard decision; demolition of a structure that’s on both state and national historic registries, and imprinted in the memories of those who have been faithful members for decades.

Wetumpka attorney Keith Howard, though, isn’t letting the building go quietly. He represents a several disgruntled church members who are not in favor of tearing it down.

“We don’t think there is real, logical necessity for having the church destroyed,” Howard contends. He says his clients offered a suggestion to raise the necessary funds to pay for repairs but felt that idea was not “warmly embraced” by the church.

And so there are now two opposing sides.

The issue comes down to this: First Baptist held two votes with its parishioners. The first time around, the general consensus was to try to save the sanctuary.

But the church says it fulfilled a promise to hold another vote if they got new information on the estimated cost of repairs. That information later came back and the cost to fix everything was 25 percent higher.

“Not millions, but close to a million," said Cantley. Demolition, on the other hand, was about $80,000.

In March, another vote was held. This time, 70 percent of those present for the meeting voted to move forward with tearing it down.

“The church did not follow their own by-laws," Howard believes, "and those opposed were not given enough notice.”

Cantley disagrees and says the church’s attorney said church leaders did nothing wrong, that the votes were handled legally and ethically.

There is one common thread both sides can agree on. The sanctuary is structurally sound. Beyond that, there are differences, including what’s the best use of the insurance money moving forward.

Cantley says there is another force at hand and that involves liability insurance. It’s only days from expiring, and that means the church is being forced to quickly do something.

The current insurance provider says it will not provide anymore coverage after the policy soon expires.

“So the reason we have to take action is to prove to any potential future insurance company that we’re worth their risk," Cantley explained.

Cantley feels, overall, the insurance money they have now would be better spent building a new, multipurpose building.

But it’s not so clear cut, according to Howard, who says he’s looking at filing a lawsuit to stop the impending demolition based on what he considers an invalid second vote. He believes “certain people in leadership of the church wanted the old building down.”

For now, the plan is on track to bring down the sanctuary in the next few weeks unless Howard moves forward with a suit and a court agrees to intervene.

“We regret that it has come to this," Howard said. “We truly want the church to be unified and handle this in a Christian, Christlike way.”

Cantley admits “the difficulties we are currently going through, the last thing that either side wanted to go through is this."

Despite a vote that is expected to bring about the building’s ultimate demise, not all physical aspects of the oldest structure at 205 W Bridge Street will be lost.

Church leaders say they will salvage as much as they can from the old sanctuary, including the doors and stained glass windows, for use in the planned multi-purpose building.

That building is slated to rise at some point on a plot next door to the old sanctuary where the Impact Center used to be.

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