An old church has a new mission — and a renewed building — in Old Town Key West.
“The church now known as Williams Hall aims to further the discovery of a better way to achieve life’s most paramount objectives,” states its website at williamshall.org.
Maria Sharpe hadn’t planned to buy the church next door to her house. She hadn’t planned to create a new congregation and fill voids in the Key West community. But a casual comment from a local attorney three years ago, about the pending sale of the 1912 building at Fleming and William streets, started her thinking about what the people of Key West needed.
“This isn’t about me; this isn’t about Maria and Rob Sharpe buying or running a church,” Sharpe emphasized, giving Keys Weekly an exclusive preview while hesitating even to be quoted. “This is about Williams Hall filling voids in our community. We don’t want to be redundant, but rather supplemental to current offerings.”
“We are a church,” Sharpe emphasized during a recent tour of the restored 1912 structure that was previously owned by the Methodist Church, but has housed a variety of congregations and spiritual beliefs. “Regardless of what people may have heard, Williams Hall is not a community center. We’re a church with a mission to ‘inspire faith, empower teens to unleash their potential and enrich the lives of older adults.’”
The church is owned by a nonprofit foundation with an independent board, she added.
A certain mystique has surrounded the renewal project, with nearly everyone in town believing they know what’s happening at the newly renamed Williams Hall in honor of “Mother Williams,” a late pastor from Bahama Village, as well as the church’s location at the corner of William and Fleming streets.
“It’s going to be the new Isle Cook; it’s a community center; it’s a health and wellness center,” are just a few of the assumptions circulating among social circles.
Upon negotiating the purchase, the Sharpes donated the building to the new nonprofit organization that now owns Williams Hall.
The church’s programs are designed to serve the island’s traditionally underserved populations — older adults and teens — while hosting pastors and religious leaders from all denominations for Wednesday and Sunday services and sermons.
“There are many pastors and small congregations in our community that have no home,” Sharpe said. “They’ll have a home here, with Sunday and Wednesday service schedules and sermon topics that will be posted online each week.”
“The focus of Williams Hall is to provide an environment for spiritual exchange and services, life skills learning opportunities for young teens, social activities and classes for the age 50+ community and cultural programs for all ages,” the church’s website states. “Through a variety of services, classes, lectures and meetings, Williams Hall can return the facility to its historic relevance in the community.”
The church’s programs include Unity Table featuring chef Martha Hubbard.
“Our semester-long workshops help members of all ages navigate the wide and diverse world of food through chef demonstrations, speakers and hands-on cooking experiences,” the website says. “Participants learn the basics of food and knife safety, menu and grocery list planning and how to source and read quality recipes. At our Unity Table dinners, members of the community from all walks of life will gather to forge bonds across the table. During the meals, diners can observe the chef at work and learn about the recipes and techniques involved in cooking their meal, giving each dinner a performative and educational aspect.
“Our modern, teaching kitchen offers a comfortable space to enjoy fellowship with our community members and the specialty dinners and culinary programs are an important part of our fundraising efforts,” Sharpe said. “The mission of Unity Table at Williams Hall is to share the joy of food. We also teach young teens basic cooking skills and guide older adults to explore new cuisines and healthy eating habits.”
Health and wellness
Specialized fitness classes will also be offered for teens and older adults, Sharpe said. Instructor Rashad Harper has designed balance and strength-training curriculums for older adults and Humble Hands boxing and martial arts disciplines for teens.
Skill classes and lectures
Engaging, relevant lectures and skill classes at Williams Hall will span multiple disciplines and subject areas, including foreign language instruction, computer skills, quilting and financial planning, as well as lifestyle programs featuring age-appropriate physical activities and dietary education. A sewing room has been installed at Williams Hall to house the knitting and quilting groups that lost their former home.
“We want our seniors to be comfortable using FaceTime, Zoom and other relevant technology,” said Mike Marrero, project manager for Williams Hall.
“And we want teens to be able to learn things like public speaking, interview skills, graphic design, cooking and financial literacy. This is the community’s church, and the community will determine the programming,” Sharpe said, adding that Unity Table, Humble Hands and the church’s drama club, with Juliet Gray at its helm, are the church’s resident programs.
“Teenagers are an important, and often overlooked, element of our local community,” Sharpe said.
“Williams Hall offers an environment in which teens can be exposed to subject matter not offered by any other venue. Our programming supplements school curricula with courses that focus on life skills, societal skills and drama. These programs are designed to build self-esteem, self-reliance and self-confidence and provide a strong foundation for responsible adult lives. We believe the skills our classes impart will help local teens become thriving members of the Key West community, or wherever their paths may lead,” the website says.
The restoration project
Restoration crews, led by Joe Hughes of William Becker Inc. general contractors conquered time and termites to transform “that old church on Fleming Street,” into today’s Williams Hall.
When you stand inside the sprawling congregation area of the renewed church, be sure to look up. The church boasts one of the highest ceilings on the island, made from individual pine planks that have each been sanded, restored and polished to perfection.
But Williams Hall’s most eye-catching and light-bending features are its 1912 stained-glass windows, each one expertly secured and vividly restored.
Works by local artists adorn every wall in the church, whose renaissance has also been supported by the Joan & Edward Knight Foundation as well as private donations.
The transformation is nearly complete. Stay tuned for opening details.