ST. PETERSBURG — Three flags flutter above the compound where a new pagoda-style temple is nearing completion and a bronze Buddha overlooks the street.
Next to Meadowlawn Middle School, this is where hundreds of worshipers gather from as far away as Miami, Orlando and Sarasota for important Buddhist holidays, retreats and cultural events.
"Part of it is we have the shrine," said Tanya Vu, a longtime member of the Chua Phat Phap Buddhist Temple at 1770 62nd Ave N.
The shrine, with photos and ashes of deceased loved ones, draws a steady stream of visitors for major festivals like the recent Lunar New Year and upcoming Buddha's birthday.
Chua Phat Phap has the largest predominantly Vietnamese Buddhist congregation in Florida, Vu said.
The Venerable Tri Tinh, 41, the congregation's abbot, wanted to build a new temple to replace the current one, because updating the older facility would have been too costly, Vu said.
"And on top of it, he needs the space for other events," she said.
The current worship space, a converted Presbyterian church lined with pews, will be turned into a social hall. The Buddhist congregation bought and moved to that closed church property in 2004. Tinh said at the time the move would give the thriving community a place to grow.
In the years since, the congregation of about 1,200 has put its stamp on the property, removing a cross and adding small exterior architectural details to the former church, raising the former South Vietnam flag alongside American and Buddhist flags, and decorating a streetside garden with white marble statues and a bronze Buddha centerpiece.
The former church sanctuary represents Western culture, said Tinh, who speaks English, but mostly turned to Vu as his interpreter. The new temple and its East Asian architecture will be more representative of the congregation's culture, he said. Towers on either side of the building will be used for offices and meditation and shrine rooms.
Founded in 1981 by Vietnamese refugees in the Tampa Bay area, Chua Phat Phap settled at 1085 Plaza Commercio, off Gandy Boulevard, for more than two decades. The bronze Buddha that was carefully moved from there to the former Presbyterian church in 2004 is now the centerpiece of what will be the congregation's first brand-new temple. The statue, hoisted into place with a forklift, sits on top of a specially built concrete platform topped with green marble. A lower platform will be added in front for monks and nuns to sit during services, Vu said.
Meanwhile, the specially ordered front doors still need to be installed, the interior painted and the floor finished. Vu said most of the congregation will sit on the floor, though benches will be placed along the wall for elderly members.
The $1 million temple, being built with money borrowed from members of the congregation, will be dedicated on April 13. Monks and nuns from across the country and Vietnam have been invited to the ceremony.
For Vu, it will be a happy occasion.
"I am delighted, because with the new temple, more technology is included. With the new temple, you can have a projector and screen," she said.
"There will be AC and heat. It is better than what we have in the old temple."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.