Parkway Heights celebrates 70 years

By BETH BUNCH,

Seventy years ago, a group met to form Parkway Heights Methodist Church. On Feb. 20, the exact day these folks gathered, the current membership of the church will gather for a party, complete with food, cake, music, videos, testimonies and skits. In the words of Pastor Bruce Case, “we’re going to party like it’s 1949.” The fun begins at 6 p.m. Feb. 20, in the church’s Founders Hall.

 

New church needed

In 1948, the Hattiesburg District of the Methodist Church conducted a survey that revealed 354 Methodists were living in what was then considered west Hattiesburg – west of 18th Avenue to the city limits. It was determined that a new Methodist church was needed for the area.

On Feb. 16, 1949, the Rev. J.D. Slay mailed letters to those Methodists living in the area west of 19th Ave. to the city limits, explaining the proposed plan for organizing a church.

Four days later on Feb. 20, an organizational meeting was held at Camp School with more than 50 interested people in attendance. Official church membership records show that 48 people joined the new church at that first meeting.

One of the major decisions of the day was adopting a name for the church. Names suggested were Hardy Street Methodist, College Heights Methodist and Parkway Heights Methodist. It was decided the first person to donate $100 to the new church would be allowed to choose the name. Mrs. D. P. Ezell put down her $100 and chose Parkway Heights.

From February through May, Sunday school and church services were held at Camp School.

On May 22, Parkway Heights met for the first time in a seven-room brick house-turned church on property on the southwest corner of 19th Avenue and Hardy Street, across from Kamper Park tennis courts.

During that time the facility also served as the parsonage for the pastor and his family.

A history of the church tells how a family got to church fairly early one Sunday morning, while the pastor was still in the bathtub. Because he had to go through the gathering space to get to his clothes, he had to call his wife and have her bring him something to put on.

In 1951, the congregation posed for a photo outside the house. Ollie Jean Lane was one of those in the picture. She remembers that she was just visiting that day but was asked to join in the picture.

“I was in college in the home economics class, and the head of the Home Ed department didn’t give us any choice on which church we’d go to,” she said. “She picked up probably four or five of us girls, and she told us to ‘Be sure to wear your hats and gloves.’”

Another historic photo was taken on Sept. 27, 1953, when the congregation moved into its newly-constructed church building on Hardy Street.

On that day, the congregation left the house on South 19th Avenue after a prayer together and traveled in a caravan to the new church for a Church School Promotion Day ceremony and the formal opening of the new church.

One of the members in that photo is Richard Topp, who was a toddler is his father’s arms.

“My history with Parkway Heights began at birth in 1952,” Topp said. “I remember looking forward to our walk down 25th Avenue to church each Sunday from our house down the street. I have memories of playing with other children in the nursery and Sunday School and being cared for by nurturing adults; one being Brownie Jones, who actually attended our wedding. When Debra and I moved back to Hattiesburg in 1976, there was no question which church we would join since Parkway Heights held such fond memories to me.”

Dr. Eric Hale is another of those members whose history with Parkway Heights goes back several decades.

Hale’s family lived on what is now the southwest corner of the church’s parking lot. His backyard was where the church vehicles are now parked.

“The church was a great neighbor; all my family was members, and we simply walked about 200 feet to church each Sunday,” he said. “There were four boys in our family and during the week, the church parking lot afforded us a large space for many of our play activities.”

Alethea Pierce’s family has been members of the church since the early days.

“I was baptized in 1956 in the old sanctuary, which now serves and the Youth Chapel, and Parkway Heights has been a part of every major turn of my life ever since – confirmation, baccalaureate, marriage – and the same for my children,” she said. “The church moms and dads of Parkway have helped me raise my children. Now the fourth generation of my family is growing up at Parkway. This church is our family. They have enriched our lives and walked by our side on our faith journey.”

In the beginning, not all Hub City Methodists favored the establishment of a new church; however most members of the other Methodist congregations in town – Court Street, Broad Street and Main Street – gave encouragement to the new venture. After the church moved into a more permanent building, members from these churches provided money and other gifts to the struggling young church.

Several places were considered for the construction of a new church building. The congregation voted to purchase the R.J. Bishop property on the southwest corner of 19th Avenue and Hardy. This was a large lot sloping down to Hardy Street where the Hardy Street Shopping Mart (Sunflower)is now located.

On Feb. 22, 1953, Parkway Heights held a ground-breaking ceremony for construction of a new church at its current location. Seven quick months later, on Sept. 27, the Parkway congregation held its first service in the new church at the current location. With the addition of other buildings to the church campus, this building now serves as the youth chapel.

A new education building was added to the church in January 1962.

In April 1968, the United Methodist Church was created when the Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church united. Parkway Heights United Methodist Church became Parkway Heights United Methodist Church.

In Sept. 17, 1978, the first service was held in the new sanctuary.

Why go to such great lengths to celebrate? According to Case, “because anniversaries matter. You can tell a lot about people by the anniversaries they keep. God has helped people overcome adversity find their strength and locate God in their time of need. This church has been a rock (an Ebenezer) to this community, a place of welcome, a gathering place for people from many walks of life.

“We will take a moment, pause and remember what a rock Parkway Heights has been and continues to be.”

Those planning to attend should email avrilsword@parkwayheights.org if you plan to attend, so plans can be prepared for the free meal.

 

• January 1974, Carol Burnett, a church member, became the first woman in the Mississippi Conference (the Southern part of Mississippi at the time) to be recommended to be licensed to preach

• Fall 1975 – Parkway Heights sponsored the Tran Van Tru family, a Vietnamese refugee family.

• March 15, 1979 – Parkway Heights helped begin a tutorial program at the former Edwards Street UMC, the predecessor to what is not Edwards Street Fellowship Center.

• August 1979, under leadership from Parkway Heights and help from other United Methodist churches, Edwards Street Fellowship Center began.

• Early Encounters Childcare and Preschool was opened

• A supportive partnership with Woodley Elementary School was formed. A Parkway Heights members – for her high school senior project – began sending backpacks full of food home on the weekends with children who needed it. The program continues today along with several other ways the church supports the school.

• In partnership with Christian Services, Parkway Heights members began delivering Meals on Wheels to people in the community.

• After the tornado of February 2019, Parkway Heights housed Westminster Presbyterian Church while the church rebuilt. Today, the church has opened its doors to Ekklesia, who meets at the church on Sunday nights.

• When the church’s longest-tenured staff member, custodian Buford Chapman passed away, he had worked for Parkway Heights for 43 years.