EAST COUNTY — Stephanie Jolly sidles up to her mother, Modine Brown, and glances over a faded black-and-white-photograph of church pews filled with men in suits and ties and women in knee-length dresses.
She points to an infant sitting in her father’s arms, at the front right-hand corner of the photograph.
“That’s me,” she says, smiling.
Jolly, now 56, attended her first service at RiverLife Church when she was 2 weeks old. Her mother began attending the church with Jolly’s great grandmother when she was 5 years old. It’s the only church to which Brown has belonged.
“All the pastors I’ve had have been great,” Brown says, smiling. “The church has always been a family. Through the years, you come to love everybody.”
This month, RiverLife Church, formerly Bradenton Church of God, celebrates its 100th anniversary and will hold centennial celebration services at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Feb. 23, at the church, 1012 57th St. E., Bradenton.
“We are a church with a vision and passion of a church plant, but we have the foundation and the roots of an (established) church,” Riverlife’s pastor, the Rev. Jerry Jeter says. “We have the best of both worlds.”
RiverLife Church started in 1914, after the Rev. J.W. Buckalew held a tent revival in a community just east of downtown Bradenton. His family slept outside on palmetto branches for eight days, until a community member offered for them to stay in their home, Jeter says.
“His nickname was old ‘rough and ready,’” Jeter says. “He lived a rambunctious life for God, just has he did in sin. He was ready to do whatever (God wanted).”
Under Buckalew’s vision, a church was born. Manatee Church of God opened Feb. 9, 1914, with 28 members, under the leadership of its first pastor, W.R. Hadsock.
Hadsock baptized 15 of those members that day at the Braden Castle nearby.
The church purchased a lot on 17th Street East (then Graham Street), in Bradenton, and constructed its first building that year. Church growth caused the congregation to relocate to a new site on Seventh Avenue East in 1952.
“Pastor Oneal Hughes asked (the bank) to buy the lot, and the bank board said no because it was an empty lot,” Jeters says. “He took the church’s parsonage and moved it onto the property (so he could secure the loan).”
The church’s name changed to Bradenton Church of God in the early 1980s, while under the pastoral leadership of the Rev. Hazel Miller, who reignited the church’s vision for growth and outreach.
Its name changed again — this time to RiverLife Church — in February 2008.
At that time, RiverLife’s established congregation began the weekly set-up and tear-down schedule common to churches in their infancy. As the church prepared for growth and a new building on Morgan Johnson Road, it began holding services at Bashaw Elementary School. The church’s new name reflected its new home near Braden River High School and neighborhoods such as River Sound, Jeter says.
Jeter says the move was strategic — both in reminding the church’s members of the pioneering spirit on which the church was founded and in putting the church in a location that could make it a regional church, drawing members from Parrish, Ellenton, Bradenton and eastern Manate county.
“Moving into the school helped us solidify the vision of the church — reaching people,” Jeter says. “We couldn’t slip into (what was comfortable). We rediscovered the passion you have with a church plant.”
RiverLife’s new campus opened in 2010.
Since moving into its new building, RiverLife’s weekly attendance has more than doubled to about 250.
“It’s not about a location; it’s reaching beyond,” Jeter says. “You really have to be the church wherever you go.”
Early 1914 — Revivalist J.W. Buckalew visits Bradenton
February 1914 — Manatee Church of God forms
1914 — Church purchases first property and constructs building
1952 — Church moves to building on Seventh Avenue E., in Bradenton
1980s — Church’s name changes to Bradenton Church of God
2002 — Church purchases 15 acres off Morgan Johnson Road
2008 — Church moves out of building and holds services at Bashaw Elementary School; Church is renamed to RiverLife Church.
2010 — RiverLife Church opens at new facility
February 2014 — RiverLife Church celebrates 100th anniversary
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].