The historic church could close as soon as the developer acquires the property

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — A 75-year-old Baptist church near the Intracoastal Waterway may have held its last Sunday service.

An eviction notice now hangs on her front door and her pastor says the church was stolen from the parish ten years ago.

Every Sunday for the past six months, parishioners at First Baptist Church in Riviera Beach have walked past an eviction notice, then walked to their pews and prayed for the church to stay open.

‘They tell me I have 30 days to move,’ said Pastor Holmer Altidore, who preached at First Baptist for 40 years and said he’s helped hundreds of immigrants find homes and jobs at Riviera Beach.

“It’s important for the Haitian community,” said Altidore, who is Haitian himself. “We help the Haitian community here very well.”

But the welcoming but well-worn church could soon close its doors. The church defaulted on a 2011 loan to fix its leaky roof and faced $1.2 million in code violations from the city of Riviera Beach.

“It was almost like a trap,” said Himburson Altidore, the pastor’s son.

Church attorneys said the terms of the deal were difficult for Altidore to understand.

“It’s the pawnbroker of the loan,” church attorney Steve Santoro said. “When the fees were totaled in the loan, the rate was over 25%.”

Ten years ago, the church was forced to sell the property to a Miami-based company due to its debts.

First Baptist remained open with monthly rent as leaders hoped to raise money to buy it out.

“I keep paying every month,” Altidore said.

Two years ago the landlords tried to break the lease and evict the church. First Baptist fought the eviction in court. But a month and a half ago, Gerritt LLC, a subsidiary of a company run by billionaire developer H. Wayne Huizinga, Jr., bought the property for $1.35 million.

Why would a developer pay that for an aging church in a struggling neighborhood?

The land, so close to the Intercoastal, is valuable real estate.

“It’s near the marina,” church attorney Donovan Parker said. “This is a prime property.”

Parker has spent more than a year and filed several court petitions to keep the church open and to see if she can eventually return the property to her congregation.

Those efforts took a hit last week when an appeals court denied a suspended eviction. And this week a new updated eviction sign was installed on the front door.

“The sign on the door, the 24 hours to move out,” Altidore said.

Church lawyers have said that if an eviction is carried out, they will go to court to stop any demolition of the place of worship.

WPTV also spoke with a source close to Gerritt LLC, the Huizinga company that purchased the property in February.

This source tells Contact 5 that Gerritt was unaware of the church’s efforts to stay open when it purchased the property, and that the purchase was a business decision.

Gerritt acquired other properties near the Riviera Beach waterfront.

Jerry B. Hatch