Park Hill Presbyterian Church spent its infancy in a North Little Rock movie theater and its childhood and adolescence in a spartan former military chapel.
Today, its members worship in a well-tended sanctuary along John F. Kennedy Boulevard, with sparkling stained glass windows, a respectable pipe organ and well-padded pews.
There's a towering brick bell tower out front and a memorial on the side "For All the Saints, Who From Their Labors Rest."
On Sept. 24, Park Hill congregants will gather to thank God for 75 good years. Afterward, they'll break bread, trade stories and page through scrapbooks -- one for each of the previous 74 years.
Earlier this week, members of the anniversary team gathered to go over the logistics.
"We're figuring out how many meatballs we're going to need," said Liz Terrell, after greeting a visitor.
Ultimately, they decided to order food for 150 people.
Hundreds of postcards have been dispatched, inviting guests to attend Park Hill's "Homecoming in Celebration of Our 75th Anniversary."
There'll be coffee and fellowship at 10 a.m.; worship at 11 and a catered reception at noon.
"It's been a lot of work, but we all get along so well that it's been fun -- and it's exciting," said Terrell, a member since 2017.
Park Hill Presbyterian Church was born in the 1940s, a decade in which North Little Rock's population doubled.
PUT DOWN YOUR ROOTS
World War II veterans, once they'd saved civilization from Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, were eager to start families and put down roots.
Many of them, after passing through Central Arkansas, had decided to stay.
With new houses popping up across Park Hill and Lakewood neighborhoods, denominations rushed to establish a presence in the fast-growing area.
The Presbyterian Church in the United States (formerly The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America) already had five congregations in the greater Little Rock area. They banded together to launch a sixth.
On Oct. 19, 1947, an army of Presbyterians -- 66, in all -- surveyed the area, visiting with homeowners and gathering data.
Less than two weeks later, 11 area residents gathered at the neighborhood school and signed a petition asking the Presbytery of Arkansas to let them organize a church.
On Dec. 21 of that year, worship services began; 52 people attended.
The Presbyterians couldn't assemble at Park Hill School on Sunday mornings; the Baptists had beaten them there. But the owner of the Park Theatre offered to let them use his venue, free of charge.
Mrs. Guy Thompson provided the music, playing an old Army field organ that could be folded up and carted away in between services.
Sunday School was added on Jan. 4, 1948; some of the classes were held in area homes. That evening, 65 Park Hill charter members met at First Presbyterian Church in Argenta to formally organize and elect officers.
When the rolls closed, shortly thereafter, 80 people had signed on as charter members.
Joseph T. Sefcik, a 28-year-old native New Yorker, agreed to serve as founding pastor. The Synod of Arkansas's Home Mission Committee agreed to pay his first year's salary --$3,600 -- and to cover temporarily the rent on his "manse" -- the Presbyterian term for a parsonage.
VACATE BY NOON
Long-winded sermons weren't possible; worshippers had to vacate the premises by noon, enabling the janitor to spiffy the theater up in time for the Sunday afternoon matinees.
Eventually, the Presbyterians bought property near the corner of Pine and F streets. The War Assets Administration supplied them with a building "for the unheard of price of $1,200," Sefcik wrote in a church history, prepared in 1953.
The government threw in a heating system and a set of pews at no additional charge.
The bare-bones building had to be taken apart at Camp Joseph T. Robinson and reassembled on the Presbyterian property, roughly four miles to the southeast.
A permanent manse was eventually bought, as well, at a cost of $12,000.
The congregation skewed younger. One Sunday, 27 kindergartners attended.
CONTINUES TO WORSHIP
One of the young ones, Les Steen, now 80 years old, continues to worship there.
"The church flourished for many years," he said.
Attendance was high enough that they had to rent chairs, at a cost of 5 cents per seat, he recalled.
During Sefcik's pastorate, the congregation built an educational building. Membership rose to 252.
In 1955, one year after his departure, the Presbyterians finally installed air conditioning.
In 1966, the congregation broke ground for a new, 400-seat sanctuary; they dedicated the space the following year.
Seventy-five years after founding the congregation, most of the original worshippers have died.
Sefcik passed away in 2017, at age 96.
The Northern and Southern churches united in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (USA).
MEMBERSHIP HAS FALLEN
Since then, membership has fallen from roughly 3.1 million to just more than 1.1 million. Over the past two decades, more than 2,000 congregations have closed their doors or severed ties with the denomination.
At Park Hill, the numbers are also down sharply.
"Back in the '60s there were 300-400 in the church, active members. At Christmas and Easter, there were never enough seats," said Mike Powell, the church's former treasurer and a member for roughly four decades.
More recently, "we always had 100 to 200 [people on Sunday mornings], depending on what time frame I'm talking about," he said. "Now, we're down to 30 or 35 people."
"Like every church, we've lost a lot of membership. It's aged," said Jenny Pierce, one of the congregation's elders. "In honesty, we have to say that we're a struggling church."
Pre-pandemic, average attendance was nearly 100. Post-pandemic, "50 would be an exceptional day," she said.
In North Little Rock and nationwide, the demographic trends are discouraging, she acknowledged.
But the remaining congregants have faith that, with God's help and hard work, the trajectory can be altered.
"We're praying for some sort of spiritual renewal in the world, and we're trying to help bring that about as much as we can contribute," Pierce said.
The congregation's last minister departed in early 2022. For now, the pulpit is being filled by Carl McCormack, an interim pastor who previously led congregations in Harrison, Malvern and Woodward, Okla.
"He's been wonderful. His whole focus has been trying to heal and motivate, to just give support wherever it's needed," Pierce said.
While the congregation is smaller and older than in previous years, those who remain have deep bonds, Terrell said.
"Everyone is so welcoming. I've never walked in a place and felt at home immediately," she said.
Kaye Lowe, one of the anniversary organizers, has been a Park Hill member for 51 years. The church, she said, has always tried to be "the heart and hands of Jesus Christ for our congregation and for our community."
"All the people have just been like family to us all that time. They helped us raise our children and and raise our grandchildren, celebrate our joys and, and be with us in our sad times," she said. "That's why we've stayed."
If you go: Park Hill Presbyterian Church, 3520 John F. Kennedy Blvd., will celebrate its 75th anniversary Sept. 24, with coffee at 10 a.m.; worship services at 11 a.m. and a reception at noon. More information is available by calling (501) 753-9533 or by emailing [email protected].