TAMPA — Our Lady of Perpetual Help is among the oldest churches in Tampa, but parishioners used to joke that its pews rank among the oldest in the country.
Over the years, membership in the 127-year-old parish and the financial support that comes with it have dwindled, sapping money available for upkeep. The wooden seats faded, cracked and splintered.
"Even some of the termites grew tired of those old pews," quipped Rene Gonzalez, 79, lifelong member of the church at 1711 E. 11th Ave. in Ybor City.
Seven decades after the pews were installed, the church finally has new ones — 38 in all — as part of $70,000 in restoration work.
At 3 p.m. Sunday, the church will celebrate the renovations at a gathering that will include prayers and thank you to those who gave.
Donors in attendance will showcase the state of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, known as OLPH and beloved by many former members even as it struggles to attract new ones.
Only around 150 people are registered as parishioners so much of the money raised came from alumni of the OLPH Academy, shuttered in 1975, who are no longer part of the church, said pastor the Rev. Hector Cruz.
"The academy is gone but the alumni have not forgotten us," said Cruz, 65, who became pastor in late February after spending 10 years at a church in Brownsville, Texas.
Other restorations include a fresh coat of paint and new carpets, tiles, and a presider, or priest's chair.
The old wooden doors that led from the foyer into the worship hall were replaced by a set of glass doors with etchings of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus.
Asked if 150 parishioners are enough to keep OLPH going, Cruz replied, "No." He said he hopes Ybor City's growing residential population will include Catholics interested in attending the church.
Meantime, Cruz will seek to build upon the success of his predecessor, the Rev. Roland Lajoie, and his work in building support for sustaining the parish.
"Old parishioners or students and their children come back to be married or baptized," he said. "They have ties here so want to keep the tradition."
That base remains quite large.
OLPH opened in 1890 under the name Our Lady of Mercy with its original wooden structure built on property purchased from Ybor City namesake Vicente Martinez Ybor through a donation from railroad pioneer Henry Flagler.
Later that decade a parish school was built.
Then, in 1937 the original church was demolished, the brick one that still stands was built, and the parish was renamed Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
As the Catholic church for Spanish-speaking immigrants in Ybor City who built the community's cigar industry into the largest in the world, OLPH had as many as 5,000 parishioners at its peak in the 1960s.
But the cigar factories closed and the children of the immigrants sought out lives in other areas of Tampa.
The decline in membership has continued but there have been no discussions about closing the church, said Michael Tkacik, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.
Still, Clarisse Castro, 72, a former student at the academy who drives 20 miles a week from Lutz to attend mass there, is concerned.
"I keep praying," she said, "that former students and parishioners and those numerous couples who were married at OLPH would come back and keep the church going."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes