Financial woes, dwindling numbers lead to sale of historic Presbyterian church

Historic First Presbyterian Church, which has been on Monroe Street since 1927, is up for sale as a result of a recent decline in membership and financial troubles. (Mauro Whiteman/DD)

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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  1. Thank you very much, Godless-apostate PCUSA leadership. Your work is done here. Over 40 years of perpetual decline in membership. You blame everyone and everything except the truth that… do not love, worship and obey the Triune God Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you do not obey and teach God’s infallible/inerrant Word written for us….THE BIBLE, you value the applause of people more than the applause of God, you have made God in your own image and worship the creation over the Creator, you declare sin-righteousness and righteousness-sin…. The list goes on and my, how this once great servant denomination has fallen. I am so glad there is still a tiny remnant of the faithful, true believers in your ranks but, alas, we are being pushed out the exits as fast as you can get us to leave. You deserve the emptiness you are getting and you don’t seem to care in the slightest. Repent and return to the living Christ who came, lived, died, rose again and lives now for you and your salvation….repent and return if you care at all.

  2. You know the difference Terry Lincoln and God? God doesn’t think He’s Terry Lincoln. Eesh.

  3. Terry Lincoln doesn’t think he is God, but he seems to KNOW God. The real question for everyone is whether Jesus will recognize THEM and not say to them “Depart from Me, I never knew you>”

  4. The PC(USA) is awful. Their pastors openly reject the resurrection of Jesus, and the average age of their congregations is over 60. They’re dying, and they deserve it. Let them go. Money won’t buy them congregants.

  5. I am saddened to read the preceding comments. The God I worship is a God of love and grace. The church I attend is full of loving members who know Jesus as Lord and savior, teach and speak the word and live it our in their lives. I invite anyone interested to come and worship with us on Sunday. I am truly saddened that people feel that the Presbyterian system has let them down as mentioned above. However there are exceptions to every rule. We are doing what we can to be the well of Gods spirt in downtown, loving and sharing Christ in the heart of Phoenix. This is not an easy task. People have moved out of the downtown area over the years and it is only now that it is finally beginning to be reborn and rise from the ashes. I pray for Terry and Paul and Brian…Lord hear my prayer that these children of yours find your peace, love and grace in their lives and that you touch their hearts so that they may reach out and love others into your kingdom In Jesus’ name…Amen.

  6. It seems Terry is on the right track with his message although I can’t condone the judgemental tone of it. There is only one word and that is the word which was written so many years ago which concluded during and just after Jesus’ ministry. The New Testament was a nice addendum for the Old Testament. That word will never sway, never change and never accept things which God doesn’t like. I am non-denominational for many of the above stated reasons. I cherish the purity of the word and work in a Truth Matters small group to find Bibical answers to questions. We use multiple translations to assure the correct context of the word. If in doubt, pick a common translatio…or 2…or 3 of the Bible and read…use a NLT, NIV, MSG and others. Even a King James if you like the language. I caution against translations written for specific denominations. Just a word or 2 changed can adversely affect the context of the verse. Some of these have significant changes and added books. There is a ongoing debate on just which books should be included in the Bible which will only be answered when we stand before the Father and he shows us. The rules and instructions are all there, No exceptions. However, it is important to remember the world and context in which it was written 2000 years ago. We really shouldn’t stone one another for sins as punishment as scattered throughout the text in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, John, 1 Kings and other books. Leave the judgement to the father above and graciously bow out if the preached message doesn’t sync with what you think the Bible conveys. This is what is happening with PCUSA and other denominations. I know this church even though I live far, far away. It is such a beautiful building even after the fire years ago. I would feel sad for it to sit empty and quiet some day. Maybe, they should consider a change to a non-denominational message although a lack of downtown residing population will still be a challenge. Some of this can be overcome with smart marketing and the right message to keep the interest of those who walk through the doors. I consider any denomination that rewrites or changes the context of the written word to be a false religion. I prefer to practice as true as Jesus’ written word as I possibly can.
    Am I perfect? No. Do I have to be? It’s not possible.
    I do know God’s will and only look up to Jesus as an example. I have no other heroes. It’s a tough line to walk, but I really am happier and I pray that the father will claim to know me when that fateful day comes. I pray this for everyone and judge not their sins and failures. I try to do what I should do, rather than what I could do….liberally.