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Historic St. Paul AME Church leaves downtown Tampa building

TAMPA — They swayed and clapped to the promise of another future.

The best is yet to come, they told one another. Still, saying goodbye — even to a building — is difficult.

On Sunday, about 100 members of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church did just that, as they packed into pews at the historic institution's red brick and white stone downtown building for one last service.

Leaders say dwindling membership and funds are forcing them to leave the two-story church, which has served as a religious, political, social and cultural hub for the African-American community in Tampa for nearly 100 years.

It saw everything: baptisms and graduations, weddings and funerals. The Rev. Jesse Jackson visited, as did former President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and a host of other dignitaries. Organizations such as the NAACP, the Elks and the Knights of Pythias met there.

Today, the church has fewer than 100 active participants. Older members are long gone, newer generations have moved away or found other interests. The building on E Harrison Avenue has fallen into disrepair. A window in the main prayer hall is missing a stained glass panel, the walls have cracks and the air-conditioning stopped working more than six months ago.

Still, for many like 52-year-old Joselyn Walker Saffore, the building is home.

She remembers Sunday school at 9:30 a.m. and morning services that followed at 11. Growing up in an era without video games or the Internet, she loved attending choir rehearsals with friends.

It was like "the attachment you have to a friend or the feeling of going to Mama's house," said Walker Saffore, a lifelong AME member who was baptized at the church. "To not be here anymore, I never thought that day would come."

The congregation will move temporarily to Mount Sinai AME Zion Church on N Nebraska Avenue until it finds a permanent home, said Robert "Pete" Edwards, one of the church's trustees.

The current building, which has been labeled a historic property, will be preserved.

Leaders emphasized that the church is neither closing nor merging. It will maintain its identity and continue serving the young, the old and the homeless, they said.

"It's a tough call to make," Edwards said of the decision to change the church's location. "While the building's architecture is significant, wherever God sends us we'll make a difference."

Pastor Bryant A. Fayson, who came to St. Paul AME seven years ago, also said he is confident about the congregation's future.

"We don't consider this a closing service," he said. "We consider this a transitional service."

In keeping with that idea, the mood at Sunday's service seemed upbeat and hopeful.

Members sang and prayed and listened to a narration of the church's glorious history.

Founded by the Rev. Thomas Warren Long in 1870, it was first known as the "Brush Harbor Mission" and was located at the corner of Tampa and Harrison Streets. It was later renamed Mount Moriah AME and moved to Marion Street. The foundation for the current church on Harrison Avenue was laid in 1906 and the building was completed in 1913.

Jacqueline Allen, 62, another longtime member, said after initial disappointment and sadness, she came to terms with the news about the move.

"This is a building," she said. "Church is in the heart."

Nandini Jayakrishna can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or njayakrishna@sptimes.com.

Historic St. Paul AME Church leaves downtown Tampa building 08/30/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 30, 2010 12:16am]

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