In the late 1870s, the population around the shores of Lake Worth had grown considerably. At first there were no formal religious services. People were scattered along the shores and getting together was difficult, especially when there was no minister to lead them. There wasn’t even a circuit rider. In 1886, a school building was erected a mile north of today’s Flagler Bridge, on the east shore of the lake. For a time, the settlers would gather to worship in the school.
Any minister who might be traveling south would hold services. An Episcopal bishop visited one Sunday. He believed this would be a good place to establish a parish. He wrote in a church paper, asking for a clergyman to volunteer to come to Palm Beach. Joseph Newton Mulford answered that call in 1889. He was from Troy, New York, and asked only that his expenses to reach Florida be paid.
Mulford was born in 1837 in Pennsylvania. His parents were from New Jersey and England. His wife was the former Mary Cluett, born about 1837 in England, and she accompanied him to Florida. They had no children of their own but brought along Mary’s fifteen-year-old nephew, Sanford L. Cluett who, in later years, invented the process known as “Sanforizing.”
Mulford was an artist, wood carver and carpenter. With the help of local men, he built a small (100 seat) church next to the school building. Mary named it Bethesda-by-the-Sea, after their church, Bethesda, in Saratoga Springs, New York, where they spent their summers. A shingled building with a clock tower was built on the same site a few years later. It is still standing on the east shore of the lake opposite Currie/Bethesda Park.
Joseph Mulford served as the Episcopal rector for ten years. People of other denominations worshipped at Bethesda-by-the-Sea until such time as their denominations were established.
Mary Mulford died in 1915. The Cluett Gardens at Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach are named for her. Joseph died in 1921, at age eighty-four.