Drive-In Church Closes

From the February 19, 2011
Arizona Daily Stary
By Phil Villarreal

Drive-in worship is no more in Tucson.

After operating for 45 years, a south-side drive-in church will hold a goodbye ceremony Sunday. The Park Avenue Christian Church's final service was held last month.

The church opened in 1952 and in 1966 added its unique drive-in Sunday service, in which the pastor would preach alongside an organist to a congregation in parked cars with speaker boxes or low-frequency FM radio broadcasts of the sermons, said Harold Snapp, 82, who chaired the church board.

He said the drive-in option provided an alternative for those who didn't want to get gussied up to worship.

"People who didn't feel like getting ready for church or brought their dogs or cats or kids or whatever could listen through the drive-in-theater speakers," Snapp said. "I never did use it very much, but it was handy."

Hazel Coatsworth, a church trustee, said Sunday's event will be a sad occasion, but an inevitable one since the church has been on wobbly ground for years.

She said the church has struggled financially and membership has dwindled to about 10 members. Snapp said most of the members are elderly, and what few newcomers the church could attract didn't stay long.

"We've exhausted our (checking) account and most of our savings," Coatsworth said. "I could see it coming for two years. I felt very depressed at that time. The real work of closing basically started last fall."

Coatsworth's late husband, John, was the church's pastor from 1960 to 1982, and created the church's distinctive drive-in service. He held early services at drive-in movie theaters, preaching from a trailer bed using recorded music. Later on, the service moved to the church's own property. John Coatsworth retired in 1982 and died in 1998.

Hazel Coatsworth said the church will sell the land, which she says spans about a city block. She said members of the congregation have dispersed to other churches.

The church's final pastor, Kevin Prahar, did not return repeated phone calls.

The closing will no doubt be an emotional moment for Coatsworth, 91, who raised her six children in the church.

"I don't want to say it's a celebration," she said, "because I don't like to celebrate the closing of a church."