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The Little Church of Holiday has a mighty heart and a hopeful attitude

HOLIDAY

The service began at the Little Church of Holiday with only two people in the pews.

"I hope somebody comes up the driveway on this song," guest preacher Marvin Brafford said, strumming his guitar. As I Saw the Light ended, a woman and three children streamed in.

This is Irvine and Mary Evelyn Lowe's church, Pasco's smallest. They never know how many people will show up for the Sunday sermons: Some weeks it's a handful, other times it's more than 30.

Congregants are treated to plenty of freshly baked breads. The Lowes often leave the door of the one-room building open so everyone can enjoy the fresh air and chirping birds.

One faded signs out front advertises the 10 a.m. service.

Another says For Sale.

• • •

The cottage on Longwood Avenue rose in 1955 on 3 acres. Mary and her mother, Sallie Cannon Burgess, loved the quiet of the barely 500-square-foot building surrounded by orange groves.

A succession of daughters used the home until 1980, until a friend of the family, Sam Nugent, needed a place to preach; the tent where he was evangelizing was no longer available. The Lowes, who studied to become ministers at Light of the World Tabernacle on Leo Kidd Avenue, lent Nugent the cottage, then took over the ministry two years later.

Today the church property is a green surprise deep in the neighborhood of some 200 houses just east of U.S. 19 and south of Darlington Road. Many who stumble upon the little wood-frame church may think it is abandoned.

The building is boarded up to protect against vandals. Graffiti flanks the rust-colored cross painted on the door, though most of it is respectful: "God rulz."

Inside is a plastic light-up angel on one shelf and a "Bless This Home" plaque on the back counter that once was Sallie Cannon's kitchen.

Mary is 81. She favors long dresses, and her voice has the soft twang of a Florida native and longtime resident. She was once married to Jim Baillie, of the family that lent its name to Baillie's Bluff. Three of her four children are Baillies.

Irvine, 67, wears Western shirts when he leads a service, often delivered in a self-effacing way. "I'm going to sing, I might as well get it over with," he says.

Mary blushes as she and Irvine recount their love and marriage — and getting saved. They met in a bar on State Road 54 near the Anclote River. As soon as thrice-divorced Mary saw the lanky blond man playing pool, she said to a girlfriend, "See him? I'm going to marry him."

Irvine tried to run, but it wasn't much use. They married in 1974.

Irvine, who had no children of his own, refers to Mary's children as his own, even though the eldest is less than three years his junior. He came from a big family — 13 kids.

One night Mary and Irvine met up with family members who had attended a sermon by evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman.

They sat around a table at about 2 in the morning. "They all wanted to hold hands and pray. I thought that was so silly," Irvine said. "I just wanted to get out of there."

But when the group started praying, "Jesus walked up to me. That's when I changed."

• • •

Today, beyond the Sunday services, Mary runs a ministry of help, helping anyone she can with food, getting to doctors, whatever it takes.

Longtime Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Olson has been a friend for many years. "She was always there doing whatever she could for the kids and the community," he said.

Easter Sunday, for instance, Mary gave away gossamer pastel dresses to little girls in the congregation. A friend had brought the clothing from Asia.

Up until Irvine retired last year from his job as a meat cutter at Winn-Dixie, the Lowes gave away food at the church on Tuesday afternoons. They have handed out backpacks to neighborhood children at the beginning of the school year, held Easter egg hunts and hosted community picnics with music.

"If a person could really count the people who have come through here, they've seen hundreds," said Carol Marcum, 58, of Port Richey, who used to be married to one of Irvine's brothers. "People will come in and get dedicated to the Lord and they will either go overseas or to another church."

Even though it's small, even though many in the same neighborhood don't even know it's there, "It's a well-loved church," Marcum said.

• • •

But it's too small.

The Lowes dream of a bigger church, one that would have a Sunday School and serve more families. But they haven't been able to get a permit to expand the now ramshackle building, nor could they afford it.

The cottage, a piece of disappearing Florida, has been on the market for six years, priced as high as $375,000, awaiting an offer. Mary's grandson, Heath Brinkley, has been in discussions with a company interested in building affordable housing — a proposal that would need to clear regulatory hurdles.

Selling the land would give the Lowes money for a new sanctuary elsewhere.

"We're just trying to find what the Lord wants us to do," Mary said, acknowledging that many of the neighbors and congregants want them to stay.

But there are troublemakers, too: Vandals who throw oranges from Mary's mother's tree and do wheelies behind the church. More than once the porch has been damaged.

Irvine now blocks the two entrances to the grassy circular drive with logs because people drive in and dump couches and other junk. He shoos away the teens who gather in the woods, afraid one match could destroy everything.

"I really don't like doing stuff like this," he said.

They may rent a new spot on U.S. 19, but they're still figuring things out.

Still waiting for God's plan to become clear.

"This is where the Lord put us," Mary said, "and we haven't been released."

The Little Church of Holiday has a mighty heart and a hopeful attitude 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 1:56pm]
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