ST. PETERSBURG — When Kelly Paxton pulled open the wooden door of Holy Family Catholic Church on Thursday evening, her knees buckled. She stumbled, steadied herself, caught her breath.
"Okay," she said softly. "Here we go."
The sanctuary was dark and quiet. She could hear water gurgling in the baptismal font. Behind her, along the back wall, a line of 11 people waited to confess their sins.
Paxton had never been to confession. She was baptized Catholic but had been away from the church since she went to college. Now, at 40, she wanted to — no, needed to — come back.
She dropped to one knee and crossed herself, slid into a pew and bowed her head. She prayed for strength, to get through this. Help to say the right thing.
Then she walked to the back and stood at the end of the line. Her hands sweated. Her stomach churned. She closed her eyes and leaned against the wall.
For 12 years, she had longed to ask for forgiveness.
The confessional's door opened an hour later, and the priest beckoned her inside.
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All 75 Roman Catholic churches in the Diocese of St. Petersburg opened their doors from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday to hear confessions, part of an effort to welcome back lapsed Catholics. The event, "The Light is on for You," has been held for the past two years.
This year, the diocese commissioned television commercials. Since December, "Catholics Come Home" ads have appeared on Bright House cable stations across Tampa Bay.
"We want people to come back," said diocese spokesman Frank Murphy. "We want them to understand that they still have a relationship, no matter what's happened in their lives."
The diocese, which spans Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, includes about 400,000 Catholics. Only 150,000 of them actively attend local parishes, according to the diocese.
Four Catholics have left the church for every one who joins, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The push to bring Catholics back stems from concerns of "increased secularization and a drawing away from regular practice among Catholics," said Mary Gautier, a senior research associate with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a non-profit agency affiliated with Georgetown University.
Over the past several decades, the number of Catholics participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year has dropped significantly. Three-quarters of Catholics say they never participate in confession or do so less than once a year, according to the center.
In the 1950s, that number was flipped: about 75 percent of Catholics went to confession.
"We're just trying to spur people who might have been thinking about the church to go ahead and stop by on their way home from work, or after they pick the kids up from soccer," said Father Tim Sherwood, pastor of St. Raphael Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. "We're gearing this toward people who have been away from the church for a long time."
Before returning Catholics can receive Communion, he said, they are supposed to go to confession, pay a penance — usually prayer — and have the priest absolve them of their sins.
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Kelly Paxton is a single mom who teaches autistic children at Bardmoor Elementary. Her daughter Gabrieala, is 11. Paxton's mom was Lutheran. Her dad was Catholic. Though baptized in the church, she went to Mass only on Christmas and Easter. Most Sundays, she attended Protestant services with her mom.
When Paxton was 17, her parents divorced and her mom stopped going to "regular" church. Then her mom met a man who turned her onto metaphysics — and the mom denounced everything about faith that she had taught her only daughter.
"I was angry," Paxton said. "I was confused. I felt like (the musical group) REM: Losing my religion."
Why, she kept asking herself, did she say all those prayers, go to church all those Sundays, if her mom didn't even really believe?
She moved to New York, taught Montessori school and tutored Hispanic children. Twelve years ago, she got pregnant and moved to Florida to be near her mom.
When Paxton's dad died six years ago, she went to his funeral and, for the first time since she was a teenager, attended a Catholic Mass. That's when she decided to put her daughter in Catholic school. And started going to services again.
"I had been searching for something, to understand and belong," she said. "There was so much going on in my head that I needed to sort out. I needed to confess some things from my past. I needed forgiveness, so I could heal."
In some ways, Paxton said, "I was sort of seeking therapy, I guess." She paused, shook her head. "But it was so much more."
After her daughter went through classes at Holy Family, and received her First Communion, Paxton realized she was ready to make the same commitment. She started taking classes at the church. She started taping prayers to her desk, unburdening herself to God.
She wants to receive Communion, for the first time, at Easter. But first, she had to go to confession.
• • •
When Paxton came out of the confessional at Holy Family Thursday evening, she was sniffling. Her eyes were wet. She looked up at the life-size crucifix behind the altar, crossed herself and fell to her knees.
She laced her fingers together, but her hands kept trembling.
Behind her, four more people were waiting to see the priest. It was 7:45 and he had been welcoming worshipers for almost three hours.
"I have never felt like this. I didn't know what to expect, but I never imagined it could be like this," Paxton told the church secretary. "That just opened me so much, made me want to spill forth so many other things I haven't shared or even wanted to think about."
She has more praying to do, she said. "I realized I have to pray for the other person involved, from all those years ago.
"I need to forgive," she said. "Just like God."
She walked across the church, pushed open the heavy wooden door and stepped outside, into the scarlet sunset.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.