In 1889, four communicants gathered on the shores of Lake Worth to establish an Episcopal mission, which today is known as the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. It is an amazing story of faith, courage, and vision.
In response to a request from the Rt. Rev. E. Gardner Weed, D.D., Bishop of Florida, the Rev. Joseph N. Mulford, rector at Christ Church, Troy, New York, volunteered to travel to a tiny island community, east of Lake Worth, to establish a mission in South Florida. He arrived at the Cocoanut Grove Hotel on January 2, 1889, after an arduous journey, which involved travel by train, steamboat, sailboat, horseback, and on foot. The nearest railroad at that time was still 150 miles away from what would become Palm Beach. Upon his arrival, Mr. Mulford immediately began holding services in the District School House.
The first church was built with wood that drifted ashore and from old packing boxes because there was little in the way of available lumber. The church was used for the first time in April 1889 and could seat 100 people. Mrs. Mulford gave the church it’s name, naming it after a church the Mulfords attended while summering in Saratoga Springs, New York, and which had healing waters. “Mrs. Mulford is reported to have said, ‘We go to Saratoga Springs in the summer for health and recreation, and we attend Bethesda Church there. Now, we are coming here to Florida in winter for health and recreation. Let us name this Church Bethesda-by-the-Sea, which means The House of Healing-by-the-Sea'.” Parishioners traveled to church either by walking or by boat, which could take as long as two to three hours one-way.
In November 1894, in an effort to address the needs of the growing community, the church built a larger building along the Intracoastal Waterway on the north end of the island. Bethesda was a gracious leader of the ‘Lake’ community in charitable and cultural events. At this time, Mr. Henry M. Flagler had extended his railroad to the Palm Beaches, which had become a resort destination for leading American families and European aristocrats. Many of these men and women participated in church activities and generously gave of their time and talents joining other Bethesda families who lived along the lake – the Cluetts, Binghams, Swifts, Clarkes, Bartons, and McCormicks.
During the next decades, Bethesda-by-the-Sea and the town of Palm Beach simultaneously became more fully established, each impacting the other. In 1922, the Missionary District of South Florida became the Diocese of South Florida. In the same year, Canon James Townsend Russell became Rector of Bethesda. It was his courage and vision regarding the ‘powerful force’ Bethesda held in ‘furthering belief’ both nationally and internationally that inspired construction of the current building in 1925, the iconic sanctuary in which we worship today. 2014 marked Bethesda-by-the-Sea’s 125th year of worshiping and serving God, and together we the year celebrating all aspects of our mission and ministry. In addition we have undertaken an critical and ambitious restoration project, along with a drive to preserve our buildings and grounds for many generations to come. Here is a brief video that shows the intricate work involved in this project.
Over the years, thousands of visitors have taken time to pause and reflect in this place. Beautiful stained glass windows fill the visitor with awe as sunlight illuminates the brilliant colors, casting ethereal images in the shadowed church.
When visiting Bethesda, The Cluett Memorial Garden provides yet another dimension to the beauty and grace that is, and always has been, Bethesda–by–the–Sea.
Church Lecture Tour
September through May, we offer a Church Lecture Tour at 12:15 p.m. every second and fourth Sunday of the month. During the summer, we offer the tour at 11:15 a.m. every fourth Sunday. The tour will include information about architecture and the beautiful embellishments of the church. The tour is presented by Ann Elizabeth Hall and members of the Church Lecture Tour Committee. Upon request, the Church Lecture Tour is available year round to groups outside the church. Contact the church for more information.