Like an aging Southern beauty, it remains charming and captivating. The old, weather-beaten, chalky white church inevitably piques the interest of passersby. Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church of Mount Dora is tiny by today's standards No matter its size, it remains proudly perched at the southern entrance to Mount Dora as if it was a welcoming ambassador. Atop the rusty tin roof, a steeple stands strong and within it a church bell that hasn't rung in more than three years. A battered, simple wooden cross still stands firmly at the top.
The original church was built in 1896 along with a cemetery on a hilltop of orange trees across US 441. It was founded by pioneer African-American families from northern Florida and Georgia. For those early homesteaders, as well as for more recent members, the small church was a central meeting place for worship and social gatherings.
The pioneers, Julia and Richard Woodbury and her brother Archie, hauled lumber from Sanford with a wagon to build the original church. When the original burned down, the congregation built a replacement church high on a hill in 1926.
Due to the need for land for the construction of US 441, the church was later moved to its current place on Old Highway 441, across from its previous hilltop location, where it has been for at least 58 years. In 2010, it was included on the Register of Historic Places.
Inside the church, is a step back in time and a tiny glimpse of local African-American history. Inside the plain exterior doors is a small, purely functional foyer. On the left side of this tiny area is a single book case with a sign reading "Church Library." Perhaps the most eye-catching element in the foyer is a simple, framed primitive print of a congregation. On the right side is the rope that rings the church bell. Off the foyer is a restroom and a cramped office with scattered paperwork and two framed memorial cards.
A pair of tall screen doors stand straight ahead as the last remaining threshold into the sanctuary. Termites have helped themselves to the eight short pews that face the elevated altar. In winter months, the congregation was warmed by the rusty pot-bellied stove stationed among the pews. Two Bibles still sit atop the lectern as if waiting for the next reading. The modest pulpit on the altar is flanked by an organ on the left and on the right dried acorns are scattered across a piano's keyboard as evidence of the squirrels that once called it home.
The sanctuary is still adorned with artificial flowers and a few pieces of religious decor, including a print of a painting of the church and a poster-sized print titled "The Primitive Baptist Church Covenant and Articles of Faith."
Today, the historical landmark is closed to the public. On a recent sunny day, helpful Orange County Sheriff's Deputies Hicks and Capraun compassionately helped secure the building again. Vandals, vagrants and unwanted real estate agents have made a "No Trespassing" sign necessary. "Some of my first childhood memories are of when we used to meet on Worship Sundays," said Beaulah Babbs. "We would sing the songs of Zion, pray and enjoy the joyful sound of the gospel."
Babbs, 79, is one of four members of the church remaining. Her family can trace its membership back to 1942.
"All of the written history of the first church burned up in the fire," she said. "We know that Reverend McCarthy was the first pastor in 1896 but the names of the founding families are long gone. "
Rhonda Torrence, daughter of the church's late Deacon Bobby Torrence, has found memories of attending the church from childhood to adulthood."This was our family's church and though it may be hard to imagine, the entire congregation was related," said Torrence.
"I remember helping my Dad mow the church grass and cleaning up the church yard. Great times when life was simple and the church was simple and honest. I really miss those days."
Primitive Baptist churches are sometimes called Hard Shell Baptists or Old School Baptists and considered to be conservative.
"We were a small congregation of 23 families at one point in our church history. Our family was the church," said Babbs. "How I wish it could be filled again with another generation of people who worship and praise the Lord."
"I have always kept the faith that good people will help us refurbish our little church and let it stand for another century," she said.
Past families of the congregation included the Woodburys, MCCarthys, Babbs, and Torrences among others.
Tax-deductible donations for the church's preservation can be made by check payable to MDCT Live Oak Fund and sent to Mount Dora Community Trust, 821 N. Donnelly Street, Mount Dora FL, 32757. In-kind contracting, engineering, landscaping and plumbing donations are also needed.