With Christmas days away, the pageantry celebrating the $1.8 million renovation of Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg befitted the season. • The newly dedicated altar, anointed with consecrated oil and sprinkled with holy water, brought the light of hundreds of candles to the previously dim church.
Earlier, children poured water into the new baptismal font, women carried bowls of burning incense and Bishop Robert N. Lynch, resplendent in the purple vestments of Advent, sprinkled the just-blessed water onto the bowed heads of a congregation that crossed itself in response.
This Mass of Blessing and Dedication of an Altar was almost four years in the making. Back in 2007, a committee had begun discussing the possibility of renovating a worship space where yellow tape marked off crumbling pews, the electrical system was temperamental and the air conditioning musty.
A three-year, $2.1 million capital campaign was launched as the nation's financial crisis unfolded. The weekend in September 2008 that church leaders decided to proceed came on the heels of the Federal Reserve Bank's controversial decision to bail out American International Group. Despite an economy in free fall, more than 43 percent of church members pledged to support the project, with donations averaging more than $2,000.
Father John Tapp, Holy Family's pastor, believes he knows why parishioners' response — said to be higher than is typical for such campaigns — has been generous.
"I think it's just a love for their parish and a statement of faith. It's part of their history and tradition and they wanted to preserve that,'' he said.
"We also needed to secure the future for the children,'' he said of the campaign that also sought money for improvements to Holy Family School.
At the end of the second year of the campaign, the church has collected $1.6 million of the $2.1 million pledged. To start construction before all of the promised funds were collected, the parish borrowed $550,000 from the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
For the congregation at 200 78th Ave. NE, revamping the interior of their church brought about major upheaval. Lynch, in his homily at the Dec. 11 Mass, acknowledged "the challenges of temporary displacement.''
Over the past seven months, the parish of 1,800 families was dispersed among seven weekend Masses — instead of the usual four — in the church's social hall and the school cafeteria. The temporary arrangements meant tedious weekly setups and dismantling and Holy Family's three priests, Tapp, Father Paul Mangiafico and Father Larry Urban, agreed not to take any weekends off.
The effort was worth it, said Simon Dawkins, co-chair of the renovation steering committee.
"The whole process, from the high level of commitment across the parish to the capital campaign, through to spending the past seven months in our temporary worship spaces, has, I believe, brought our parish family closer together,'' he said in an e-mail. "Our real hope is now we will build on this experience to grow our faith community and reach out to welcome more members to our parish."
Renovations to the 1984 structure were extensive. "We literally took everything down to the studs,'' Tapp said.
Work included expanding the sanctuary, or altar area, enlarging the narthex, or lobby, and building a family comfort room. The changes meant that seating, now for 850, was reduced by 200. The new interior also includes an altar of steel and wood topped with a 5-by-8-foot slab of granite, a new acoustical ceiling housing new air conditioning and sound systems and a baptismal font for infant baptism and immersion of adults.
Walking into the renovated building for the first time, parishioner Janet Grogan was impressed. "Wow, it was different, very different,'' she said. "Bright, beautiful.''
Still, Grogan, who is hearing impaired, said she was a bit unsettled in the new space during the inaugural Mass. "I didn't know that the lights would be going out. And when the lights go out, you can't see the interpreter. I had to be patient for an hour.''
"I kind of hate change of any kind,'' she admitted, "but I will get used to it.''
Additional amenities for disabled worshipers have been added, such as a ramp to the altar area and an ambo, or pulpit, that can be raised and lowered. The church also will offer amplifiers for those who are hearing impaired.
Though its interior is virtually unrecognizable to regulars, certain elements, including the old church's statue of the Holy Family, Stations of the Cross and stained glass windows have all been incorporated into the new space. Wooden crosses handcrafted from the backs of the old pews were made as keepsakes for parishioners.
But it was the new church that brought the crowds to the two-hour Mass of Blessing. As the sun set, the Pascal candle near the baptismal font burned in the dimly lighted church, setting the scene for what would follow — an altar dedication, a sea of flickering candles, a rousing chorus from Handel's Messiah and a burst of electric light.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.