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St. Petersburg newcomers rehab old Russian Orthodox church in Childs Park

ST. PETERSBURG

The couple rode a motorcycle from New Mexico to snap up the old Russian Orthodox church with blue cupolas, an incongruous part of the skyline in a neighborhood where few, if any, are of the faith.

Scott Stephen and Sherry "Mani" Schafer spent her entire inheritance to buy the church, caretaker's house, parish hall and empty lot across the street and have set altruistic goals for the property on the western edge of Childs Park.

• There's the plan to provide training for residents to help them get jobs or start their own businesses. For free.

• The church will be a gallery of sorts for a selection of more than 200 pieces of art created by Schafer's late husband — a "mystic" — and serve as a venue for weddings and memorials for people of any faith, or none.

• The vacant lot may get a barbecue grill, picnic table, volleyball net and, perhaps, a recycling center. That's unless there's an agreement with the guy who has taken to parking his Jamaican jerk trailer on the sandy plot.

This isn't the first time the couple have had good intentions for a community.

Stephen said he had come to realize that there's a need for change in America. "All too often, the people seemed to be wanting to have government to do things for them. It seemed to me that it would be great if people could start taking responsibility for their communities,'' he said.

"I tried to get it going with the community in Pecos. They needed someone to show them how to bring money into the community without doing all the hard work associated with the farming community. We gave up after several years and started looking at another possibility."

Childs Park, it appears, is it.

The neighborhood, which stretches from Fifth to 18th avenues S and 34th to 49th streets, is perceived as a high crime area. According to the 2005-2009 American Community Survey's five-year estimates, median household income is $24,857 to $36,172. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that more than 80 percent of residents are African-American.

• • •

Word has begun to spread about the newcomers. Edward Hazley and his friend Eugene Mullan, both 58, showed up one day after the couple began introducing themselves to the neighborhood. Hazley was impressed with what he understood were "moneymaking opportunities and stuff that they wanted to do with the community."

"It sounded like an employment opportunity and quite naturally, it caught my eye. I thought they would need somebody to fix the building up,'' the unemployed roofer and maintenance worker said.

"From what (Stephen) is talking about, I guess people in the community that's willing to learn, he is willing to do something. That would be good, if you get the participants. … I can volunteer some time, if I could see to make some money. That's another thing, how is all this going to be afforded?"

Schafer, 56, and Stephen, 52, who have been together for six years and consider themselves "spiritually married," were living in New Mexico and contemplating buying a sailboat when he stumbled on the property at 4668 15th Ave. S while browsing the Internet.

"We were just going to live on the water and have a nice life,'' he said.

Instead, they bought the former St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Church for $223,000.

"We decided it was just a fabulous opportunity,'' Schafer said. A series of synchronistic events helped convince her they were making the right decision. "It was meant to be," she said.

• • •

A used truck made a couple of trips to haul their motorbike, art collection, digital printing equipment, sparse furniture and black garbage bags with clothes and linens to St. Petersburg. There's plenty of work to be done at their new home.

"Termites have moved in. We've got to do painting. The air conditioning is broken and the place is dilapidated. Floors have got to be ripped up,'' Stephen said of some parts of the property.

The transplants envision the former Orthodox church, now stripped of its colorful icons, as the appropriate milieu for the art created by Schafer's late husband, Georg, who renamed himself Oma Ziegenfuss.

"He wanted to let people find themselves through their own visions," said Schafer, standing amid Buddha sculptures, large, elaborate triptychs and other pieces.

"The paintings came to him as visions. If he didn't paint them, his hands would get bloody, he would have gone crazy,'' she said.

"I want to share them with people. I haven't had that opportunity, because the gallery world, I really don't feel, is the right place. And before this, I had to work full time. I did elder care for a while, I waitressed for a while and I supported four children. Now I'm in a situation where I can actually give the energy it needs to show the world.''

The collection also will be displayed in the parish hall and the caretaker's house, where the couple are settling in with their two cats, Grendel and Quazi Moto. Stephen, who broke his back years ago and is on disability, plans to conduct seminars in the parish hall. He hopes to teach participants how to use computer programs to design things such as business cards, signs and promotional material. He also will install Linux — an operating system like Microsoft's Windows, but with thousands of free programs —on old computers and donate them to residents. He wants to start a "Makers Club."

"It's about taking things, old things, taking them apart, perhaps, and you build something that you need,'' the Chicago native said.

Classes will be free, though donations will be accepted. For now, the couple are calling their project "the church" and plan to set up a nonprofit organization to accept donations. They say they will not accept government help.

"Because we don't have a mortgage and with the good work we are out to do, I feel that everything will be fine (financially),'' Stephen said.

"This is something we both have dreamed about through the years."

Times researchers Carolyn Edds contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

St. Petersburg newcomers rehab old Russian Orthodox church in Childs Park 08/02/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 2:42pm]

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