Sanctuary built in 1957
History of St. Thomas by the Sea Episcopal Church
St. Thomas by the Sea was established as an Organized Mission by the Diocese of Florida in 1954, later becoming part of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast when that diocese was created in 1981. The first service was held prior to that on the first Sunday in July of 1953 on the porch of the Community Center Building, which is now part of Charlie Lahan's Carousel, by David Damon who was a student at the Seminary of the University of the South - Sewanee. Our first Vicar was the Rev. George A. P. Jewell, a priest who had retired from the Diocese of Kentucky and was living in Panama City. Father Jewell was at St. Thomas in 1954-1955 and again in 1956-1957. David Damon, who had since been ordained, held the position for nine months in the interim. Many priest were assigned to St. Thomas through the years with the Rev. Robert Johnson also being here twice, in 1963-1965 and 1974-1977. It might be noted that the Rev. Vernon Strickland, who was our 10th Vicar, was later elected Bishop of Western Kansas, and that two members of St. Thomas were ordained priests, quite an accomplishment for such a small congregation.
The church was constructed in 1957 with the first service held in the new building on the second of June. The parish hall, which was built at this time, was enlarged in 1974 and the next year named Jewell Hall in honor of our first Vicar. A growing church added an education and office building in 1977, which was named Lahan Hall to honor Carol Lee and Broderick Lahan who were instrumental in the founding of St. Thomas by the Sea.
In 1982, under the leadership of the Rev. Jack Wilhite, St. Thomas opened the church to visiting Episcopal youth groups, building bunks in Lahan Hall and allowing the visitors to use church facilities, including the popular outdoor showers. The youth groups were not charged, which made it possible for many to visit our beautiful beaches who might not have been able to afford the vacation. This project was concluded in 2001 when Lahan Hall was returned to its original educational purposes and used by our youth.
St. Thomas' continuing growth allowed the church to seek parish status, which was granted in February 1988. In March of that year, St. Thomas East was established by this church on the fast growing eastern beaches and we became known as "The Twin Churches of St. Thomas." The two churches separated in 1992 when both were able to stand alone. St. Thomas by the Sea again became a mission church with the Rev. Charles Floyd as Vicar and Rev. Jack Wilhite serving at St. Thomas East, now Grace Episcopal Church.
Since that time, an outdoor chapel, a steeple and bell, a renovation and then addition to Jewell Hall, a wheel chair accessible bathroom, and many improvements to the church both inside and out have been accomplished through the devoted work of our parishioners. Of special note, is the beautiful stained glass window, "Jesus and Thomas," which was designed and built by our own Harry Sweezey and dedicated to the memory of Sharon and Ronald Robinson. Several years later, he also produced twelve lovely stained glass windows surrounding the sanctuary.
To be continued...