First Baptist Church of Gulfport was established two years before the port became an official city. In 1896 the first congregation met in a private home before erecting its first building near the train depot at the center of town.
   Now First Baptist occupies 1 downtown blocks and fronts on U.S. 90. The sanctuary steeple still stands tall, but the worship center itself has no walls and much of the roof is gone. The first floors of its administration, activity and three educational buildings are gutted and other floors damaged.
   First Baptist's major social ministries, a free medical clinic and food pantry, are not functioning until they find another site, and the congregation meets at Gulfport High auditorium. At least 85 of its members - about 650 attended every Sunday before Katrina - lost everything.
   "First Baptist has been an integral part of the fabric of the community, and so many Gulfport families have been a part of this church," said the Rev. Chuck Register. "We're focusing on helping the community and ministering to those in the community ravaged by the storm."
   Rebuilding the church at its downtown site is undecided.
   "The location of our ministry is yet to be determined," Register said. "We're trying to decide that as a congregation and it's premature to say one way or the other."
- KAT BERGERON