TAMPA — A 105-year-old African-American church could lose its historic Oregon Avenue home and a hoped-for new campus off Interstate 4 after defaulting on a $1.1 million loan.
Leaders at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church say they are confident they will work out a deal with Fifth Third Bank before that happens. A foreclosure auction scheduled for Monday has been canceled.
New Salem's minister since 2004 is the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the former president of the National Baptist Convention USA. Lyons was convicted in 1999 of swindling the organization out of millions.
But church trustees say they, not Lyons, made the decisions that led to the current difficulties.
"Rev. Lyons is a hired employee, a contract employee," said deacon Rufus Spencer. "He does provide leadership. But our church is run by the board."
Lyons did not return a message left at the church Friday. A church history credits Lyons with overseeing a number of recent projects, including the purchase of nearby land and a $100,000 renovation of its fellowship hall.
New Salem church started in 1906, one of the first African-American churches west of downtown Tampa. Members have worshiped out of the North Oregon Avenue building since 1950.
Even as they pushed ahead with renovations and small expansions, church leaders say they started looking to move about four years ago. The church feared it would get squeezed out by new development, including expansion of the University of Tampa, said lifelong member John Billups.
"Our church was about the only one left," Billups said.
In the summer of 2007, they found 43 acres off Sligh Avenue. Spencer said the spot was highly visible from Interstate 4 east of Tampa city limits. It had room for a large campus, including ballfields, which church members thought could help attract young families.
In June 2007, the congregation got a $1.1 million loan. The next month, the church paid $1.1 million for the I-4 land.
Fifth Third spokeswoman Melanie Chakor declined to comment about the loan.
To secure it, the church put up its historic worship hall, the parsonage and nearby parcels on Oregon Avenue as collateral.
Spencer said New Salem fell into the same predicament as many other churches when the economy tanked. It couldn't raise enough money from members and it had trouble making loan payments.
What's unclear: how and why New Salem ended up working with Jacob Dyck, a 77-year-old nonchurch member whose addresses recently have ranged from Weeki Wachee to Brandon.
In May 2010, New Salem transferred deeds to its properties to a trust operated by Dyck. Four months later, Fifth Third began foreclosure proceedings. There was a $1.04 million balance on the original loan.
But Dyck, the official trustee representative who needed to be served, could not be found, court records indicate.
Dyck could not be reached for comment for this story. Civil records in Hillsborough and other counties show he has started numerous trusts that acquire rights to properties that end up in foreclosure.
Spencer, the New Salem deacon, would not discuss how the church met Dyck or the nature of the deal it had with him.
"That's church business," he said, adding, however, that it is no longer working with him.
Spencer said he felt good about prospects for getting a new payment plan with the bank. So far, the new land near the interstate has no building.
"Our dream is still to build a new church," he said. "Our dream is to press on."
Times researchers Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Reach Jodie Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.