VALRICO — When Mary Devney invited friends into her Valrico home 25 years ago, she considered it a casual gathering.
A new church needed a place to meet. Devney's neighbors offered to host, but didn't have enough room.
"I said, we can have it at my house," Devney said.
That August night in 1987, St. Stephen Catholic Church officially began.
This Wednesday the church, which now has more than 15,000 parishioners and 100 ministries, will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a special Mass and dessert social.
Members say the church's humble beginnings, from its first meeting of 16 people at Devney's home to spending more than a year at a Valrico storefront, made it what it is today.
Most of St. Stephen's founding members, including Devney, came from Nativity Catholic Church. Nativity parishioners living in and near Valrico wanted a church closer to home, Devney said. Families made the switch to St. Stephen hoping to build a close-knit church community.
On Aug. 23, 1987, Father Jim Johnson led St. Stephen's first official Mass at the Village Center shopping plaza on Bell Shoals Road. About 300 people attended. From there, the church grew quickly. Volunteers worked to build community outreach and religious education programs, and in November 1988, St. Stephen moved to its own 24,000 square foot facility at 5049 Bell Shoals Road.
Devney served on the hospitality and welcoming committee.
"I remember in the beginning, it was a fresh new adventure," Devney said. "It was like a family."
Charter member Bernadette Kalle also remembers a camaraderie among friends.
"Everybody knew everybody and everybody helped out," Kalle said. "It was a very willing group of people that worked to get this church started."
For the first few years, Kalle volunteered at the church doing everything from grounds upkeep to answering phones. In 1992, she applied for a position as the church's parish secretary, a job title she still holds. Kalle, 56, raised three children in the church and has no intentions of retiring anytime soon.
"I just love the people," she said. "I love to remember all the good times we had, like all the parish picnics. All our events were always well-attended."
As years pass, membership at St. Stephen continues to increase. Soon, the church plans to break ground on a new sanctuary to house the growing population. Fundraising is currently under way to make the building, which will share property with St. Stephen Catholic School in Riverview, a reality.
"I remember when the church paid off the building we're in now, and we burned the mortgage," Devney said. "Now it's time for a new, bigger church."
St. Stephen celebrates its 25th anniversary throughout the year with events including a fundraiser gala and a special Mass by Bishop Robert Lynch. Parishioners also will bury a time capsule at the site of the future St. Stephen's building. In honor of the anniversary, church member Al Larson will debut a slide show of old photos and a video at Wednesday's kick-off celebration. The six-minute documentary features interviews with the churches founding leader Johnson, and current pastor, Father Bill Swengros.
"Father Johnson talks a lot about those first parishioners and how anything he needed, they were there to help," Larson said. "He remembers how dedicated they were to getting the church started."
Kalle and Devney said they look forward to seeing what photos will pop up in Larson's show.
"It's been a great parish," Devney said. "I think it's going to continue to grow and grow because there is so much development in the area."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]