In 1953, Phyllis Saylor married her husband, Frank, at the Historic First Presbyterian Church. The couple, both 82, also had their children baptized there: their daughter in 1957 and their son in 1961.
But the last church of Monroe Street’s historic “Church Row” has recently been put up for sale by its congregation’s leadership due to declining membership and financial woes.
When the HFPC made the decision to put its facilities up for sale last month, Saylor was saddened. But as a member for almost 70 years, she said everyone saw it coming because of the decline in membership.
“I think I got a few tears in my eyes when we drove up and saw the ‘For sale’ sign,” Saylor said.
Established in 1879, HFPC is considered the first Presbyterian church in Arizona. The current facility, located at 402 W. Monroe St., was built in 1927.
“HFPC has been the center of our lives,” Saylor said.
The HFPC was among several other churches on Monroe Street between Fourth & Fifth avenues, an area that was once known as “Church Row” before the 1960s. Joe Witte, a longtime member and elder at HFPC, said he remembered the times when the church was full of members.
“In the ’50s and ’60s, there was a greater emphasis on going to church,” said Witte. “Everyone attended a church. That was kind of the standard, the American way.”
Back then, he said, there was a record of at least 1,800 members of the HFPC congregation, but that number has since dwindled to about 141 members, putting a damper on the church’s financial abilities.
“My husband and I realistically have seen it coming,” Saylor said. “We come from Tempe, and we have other people coming from quite a distance to downtown, but there aren’t very many people who have gone there more than 20 or 30 years.”
Maintenance of the three-story facility adds up to about $190,000 a year, and being able to sustain that along with other expenditures has been extremely difficult for the shrinking membership, Witte said.
“We have recently added a few members, but it doesn’t keep up with how the bills keep expanding,” he said. “The biggest challenge is that it’s about a 60,000-square-foot building, and we’re really struggling just to pay the maintenance and the overhead costs for things like electricity, plumbing and water.”
Times and standards regarding church and faith have shifted since the 1950s, and other things going on over the weekend, such as sporting events and concerts, may be reasons why the church community has seen such a dramatic decrease, Witte said.
A large number of young people have never even attended church or had interest in building faith at all, he said.
“It’s a challenge for every denomination right now,” he said.
In an effort to spark interest within the community, Witte said, HFPC opened its doors to other congregations.
El-bethel Evangelical and Missionary Church, a church dedicated to establishing churches in southern Ethiopia, came to HFPC over four years ago.
Because it is a smaller group of about 200 members, Pastor Asfaw Bekele said being able to use the church building has been a blessing.
But now that HFPC is up for sale, Bekele is worried about El-Bethel’s future.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” he said. “If we have to go, we don’t know where to go.”
After trying to lease office space and run a conference center out of the church for a few years, the HFPC congregation decided to put their facility up for sale with the hopes that the future buyer would allow them to lease back the sanctuary space for their worship services.
In the meantime, Witte said, they are working with realtor Earle Shroyer to find a smaller, more sustainable facility.
HFPC is among other churches that have been forced to downsize lately, Shroyer said, and although there are several prospective buyers, it is still uncertain where the congregation will go.
“Providing another church purchases this particular property, I believe that the new church will renew the downtown area and be an asset to the community,” Shroyer said.
The church’s selling price is $3.72 million.
“Of course it’s heartbreaking,” Saylor said. “But we don’t worship the building, we worship the Lord. Our church family is our family, and it’s the people that are important to us.”
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