Church roots go back over 120 years in Osceola County
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a historic milestone in its growth in Osceola County with the formation of the St. Cloud Florida Stake on Aug. 22.
A stake is a geographic boundary that includes several congregations known as wards. The St. Cloud Stake has 3,000 members in seven separate congregations including the St. Cloud, Narcoossee, Canoe Creek, Kissimmee, Pleasant Hill (Spanish) and Ellsworth (Deseret Cattle & Citrus Ranch) Wards as well as a smaller congregation known as a branch in Kissimmee for young single adults.
The St. Cloud Stake is one of nine the Church has in the greater Orlando area. Ryan Munns, an attorney who served as the Hunters Creek Florida Stake President for the past seven years, was named the St. Cloud stake president. Two counselors were called to assist him in leading the new stake. The first counselor is Scott Sager, a software manager who lives in St. Cloud with his wife, Lisa, and their four children. Clinton Richardson, general manager at Deseret Cattle & Citrus Ranch, is the second counselor and lives in Deer Park with his wife, Debra, and their four children.
The Church has a lay ministry, so priesthood leaders volunteer their time and are not salaried. Munns has lived in St. Cloud since 2002 with his wife Heather and six children and has seen firsthand the church’s growth in the area.
“When I moved here there was just one congregation in St. Cloud, and it was pretty small. Now there are four wards meeting in St. Cloud, which is just incredible,” said Munns.
The church’s first presence in Osceola County began more than 120 years ago when missionaries traveled from North Florida to preach the gospel in the area. The Kissimmee Valley Gazette reported their travels around the county beginning May 13, 1898: “Two Mormon elders appeared in town on Monday and sought the consent of the authorities to make a house to house canvas to distribute their literature and preach their doctrine. They were warned that they might meet with rough treatment.”
Two weeks later, the Gazette reported, “Two Mormon missionaries held services in the (Narcoossee) schoolhouse.” On June 3, 1898, the paper announced, “Since leaving Kissimmee the Mormon elders have been drifting through the county on East Lake. A day or two ago they started in St. Cloud.” The early Church missionaries in Osceola County encountered opposition but were successful in teaching the gospel. According to a history of the local Church prepared by Marjorie Bright, a long-time member from St. Cloud, early converts were baptized in Boggy Creek or Mill Slough and meetings were often held on the creek banks under the oak trees.
It wasn’t until the 1950’s, after the church purchased county land establishing the Deseret Ranch east of St. Cloud, that church membership began to grow. The first meetinghouse in the county was built on the ranch to accommodate the families who came from the West to work there. It was named the Ellsworth Ward after the first ranch manager Leo Ellsworth. Then, in 1956, full time missionaries returned to St. Cloud and eventually to Kissimmee as the Church continued to grow. In St. Cloud, members held Sunday school at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall on New York Avenue in St. Cloud and then, in 1960, in the old G.A.R. building. Baptisms took place in East Lake Tohopekaliga.
In Kissimmee, services were held in the Women’s Club on Oak Street. In 1962, State Senator Irlo Bronson, a non-member, offered to gift three acres of his land facing John Young Parkway to the church. This was gratefully accepted. In 1963, the Church built the first Kissimmee church building, which is still in use. The opening of Walt Disney World came a few years later and contributed to further growth of the Church. By 2001, the church dedicated a third building in the county on Old Canoe Creek Road in St. Cloud.
Munns explained, “Having a Stake in St. Cloud is a testimony to the faithful saints who have been here; those who have been part of the pioneer effort in Osceola County and those who have moved to the area and made it home. There is much for us to do in St. Cloud to build the church and to bring folks to Christ. That is what we need in these very uncertain times, the certainty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And now we have a Stake in Osceola County to help in that effort.”
In 1898, when the first missionaries came to Osceola County, there were only several hundred members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the entire state. Today there are approximately 160,000 church members in Florida including the members of the new St. Cloud Stake.