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Sandy Baptist Church retains Old-Florida charm in Myakka City

The congregation has worked to keep the doors open after Hurricane Ian tore through the 120-year-old church.

Sandy Baptist Church stands strong on Clay Gully Road. The church incorporated in 1904.
Sandy Baptist Church stands strong on Clay Gully Road. The church incorporated in 1904.
Photo by Liz Ramos
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Walking into the one-room Sandy Baptist Church nearly five years ago, Pastor Mark Albritton had his doubts. 

He had been working at Bayside Church in Lakewood Ranch and was used to a big, modern church. He considered taking a teaching position at Bayside College. 

Meanwhile, Sandy Baptist Church was more than 120 years old in Myakka City and hadn’t seen much change in all those years.

But the Sandy Baptist Church board was asking Mark Albritton to take over as pastor after his father, Larry Albritton, retired. Larry Albritton served as pastor of Sandy Baptist from 1991 to 2019. 

Mark Albritton had one question on his mind.

How was he going to respect the traditions and history of Sandy Baptist Church and the legacy his father left while modernizing it to attract younger families and grow the congregation?

In January, Mark Albritton stood at the lectern reflecting on his four years leading the church. After an initial renovation to bring the run-down church building back to life and another project to repair the damages inflicted by Hurricane Ian, Albritton said his hard work had paid off. 

He had stepped down in December to focus on his family concerns, and had passed the pastor duties to Josh Richter, who now has the responsibility of keeping the church alive and vibrant as it heads into the future. 

In 2019, Albritton decided to take a "temporary" role as pastor at Sandy Baptist Church, but that temporary role stretched out to almost five years.

When, and if, the church reaches its 150th birthday, parishioners might deem those five years to be the most important in the church's history. Albritton went about restoration projects by letting the church's history guide him. The church was built in 1887 and the church itself incorporated in 1904.

Mark Albritton, who served as the pastor of Sandy Baptist Church from 2019 to 2023, says preserving the history of the church is a priority.
Photo by Liz Ramos

While someone outside the congregation might not have taken on the job, the church has been significant to the Albritton family for decades. His father, Larry Albritton, who is now 81, lived down the road from the church growing up. 

Larry Albritton would pass the church every day on his way to his school bus stop.

“It was nothing for a country kid to walk two miles down the road at the age of 8,” he said. 

He remembered riding his horse to the church and stopping to use a well to get water for him and his horse. He said the church also would be a stop after a night of partying in order to “calm down” before he would go home. 

He never imagined he would later preach at Sandy Baptist Church and eventually make it his home-based church. 

The church was built in the middle of a 10-acre cow pasture. The church only owned five acres, and the church's property line actually ran right down the middle of the building, with half the church actually on a neighboring property. Every time Larry Albritton preached, he was actually trespassing depending on where he was standing in the building. The congregation came together to purchase the other five acres in 2005. 

Throughout his time as pastor, Larry Albritton grew the congregation to between 40 and 50 parishioners attending service every Sunday. 

That included Sarasota’s MaryAnne Hecht.

She stumbled upon the church in 2004, a particularly bad hurricane season for Florida. Hecht, who was a digital photography teacher at the time, was taking photos of the damage in Myakka City when she came across what she thought was a “little abandoned, one-room schoolhouse,” but she realized it wasn’t what it seemed to be when she saw a sign that read, "Sunday service 11 a.m." 

Soon after, Hecht decided to attend an Easter service. When she arrived, a man on a horse was riding up to the church. Hecht asked the man why he was riding his horse. He told her his car broke down, so how else was he supposed to get to church?

The Albrittons remembered when the church hosted Cowboy Day and Old Fashioned Day, which would each draw more than 100 people to the church. Cowboys would come from all over the state, and Old Fashioned Day would teach people what it was like in the 1800s and 1900s. 

Baptisms previously were done in the pond on the church’s property even as gators swam around. 

People loved the tight knit community created at the church. Hecht said if people needed prayer, Larry Albritton would invite them to the front of the church and everyone would come together to pray for them.

But as much as he loved the history and traditions of the church, Mark Albritton knew he needed to make changes to draw in younger families and grow the congregation. 

The modernizations weren’t met without some resistance from parishioners. 

When he started at the church, he said it was in disarray with cracked windows and debris all over. Parishioners had been donating items that didn’t always have a purpose at the church. 

Mark Albritton got rid of the clutter, had the church painted, repaired the windows and purchased new songbooks. 

The thought of adding a TV and video equipment to the church was controversial, but Mark Albritton said it was necessary to infuse technology. He also added microphones at the pulpit and for the musicians. 

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Although it was an adjustment for all, attending services via live streams on Facebook became a norm for the parishioners. The services continue to be live streamed every Sunday. 

Even with the modernizations, Mark Albritton was committed to staying true to the rustic, Old Florida feel of the church. 

He was determined to keep the outhouse that remains on the property, although it’s not used anymore. Parishioners are able to use the restrooms in the fellowship hall. He said the outhouse has been updated a few times to ensure it remains standing. 

“There’s not too many left in Florida, so we’re kind of proud of our outhouse,” Mark Albritton said. “It’s actually what we used when I first started coming here when my dad was preaching here.”

Also remaining is the long wooden picnic table where the parishioners would have lunch after service every Sunday when Larry Albritton was pastor. 

The challenges kept coming for Mark Albritton as Hurricane Ian tore through Myakka City in September 2022. 

A month before Hurricane Ian hit, Mark Albritton had a deck built on the back of the church. He envisioned the deck could be used for outside activities, children’s performances and sunrise Easter service. 

A few parishioners found shelter in the church’s fellowship hall during Hurricane Ian, and they witnessed the hurricane’s fury as it was happening. Although they sent videos of the damage to Mark Albritton, they still didn’t prepare him for what he would see driving up to the church.

Pastor Mark Albritton says the deck that was built behind Sandy Baptist Church was a blessing that helped keep the church standing as Hurricane Ian tore through Myakka City.
Photo by Liz Ramos

The hurricane ripped off a large part of the roof and blew out the front wall, exposing the interior and saturating the floor and everything inside. Much of what was inside, such as the piano and books, were destroyed. 

Trees all around the church had fallen.

Despite the damage, the church remained standing. 

“It looked like a war zone,” Mark Albritton said. “I shed some tears that day, but I knew that faith has to kick in and you have to believe God protected it.”

He said the new deck was a blessing as it served as a buttress that kept the church from collapsing. 

It was time again for Mark Albritton to lead the church through renovations, but as always with the church, people came first. He decided the congregation would focus on helping others in the community who were greatly impacted by the hurricane before starting renovations on the church. 

In return, the community supported the church as it began renovations in the fall of 2023. Once repairs began, the congregation was able to complete them in January.

Before the renovation, the church had a singular platform stage at the front for the pulpit, but two more panels were added to the platform to widen it. 

After four years of leading Sandy Baptist Church into a future that balances respecting the past and embracing what’s ahead, Mark Albritton said he had to make the difficult decision to step down as the pastor. 

He was working for the U.S. Postal Service six days per week and preaching on Sundays. The demand of his job and the church left little time for him to be with his family. As hard as it was, Albritton said he had to put his family first and hope the next pastor would keep Sandy Baptist Church on its path. 

Josh Richter became the pastor Jan. 1. He said God will provide guidance as the church moves forward.

“There’s things that God’s whispering to us, but we don’t have the wisdom, so we’re just going to do what he says when he says it,” Richter said. 



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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