ST. PETERSBURG — For one congregation, the closing of St. Mary's Polish National Catholic Church was the beginning of an abiding dream. For another, it marked the end of years of struggle to remain viable.
St. Mary's, a landmark on Pinellas Point Drive S for nearly 40 years, with its statue of the Virgin Mary out front and a sign announcing services in Polish and English, has been sold.
United Community Church, a nondenominational congregation that had rented space since its inception 13 years ago, bought St. Mary's for $675,000 in December.
A Facebook post captured the congregation's excitement: "We are now the proud owners of our new church located at 2175 Pinellas Point Drive South. ... God knows what He's doing in our lives. Trust Him!!!"
In the weeks since, United Community Church has cleaned up the 3.1-acre property, installed air conditioning and begun remodeling the restrooms.
"It needed a lot of TLC in that building, and we're still working on it," the Rev. Wayne E. Wilson said.
"The pews, they are old and they are hard, but they have such a great feeling about them, we want to keep them for a while."
A baptismal pool will have to be added, and plans are being made to replace energy-draining jalousie windows, he said. Additionally, the church's interior will get a fresh coat of paint, the red carpet replaced and the attached rectory renovated for classrooms.
The purchase had been long time coming, said Wilson, 64.
"We have been talking with them for 2 1/2 years," he said.
"It was the local congregation that was spearheading the sale. Without it officially being on the market, the diocese was saying for us to talk with them and then, of course, their congregation continued to get smaller and I think the headquarters got a little tired of supporting them and so they decided to take over negotiations."
The transaction moved quickly once officials with the Western Diocese of the Polish National Catholic Church in Chicago got involved, he said.
Bishop Stanley Bilinski, who became head of the diocese in September, explained the reason for the sale.
"What was primary in the decision is that most of the congregation that comprised the parish had moved north (of St. Petersburg)," he said.
"We'd like to replant the parish to where the former parishioners have moved."
Bilinski said two Florida priests are contacting former members and will look for land or an existing building to restart the parish that was part of the Polish National Catholic Church. The small denomination was founded in Scranton, Penn., in 1897, after administrative and ethnic differences with the Roman Catholic Church.
St. Mary's, organized in 1958, moved to Pinellas Point in 1976. About two decades later, the congregation tried to sell the property. It has been on the market at least three times. In 2007, when it was being marketed for single-family homes, the list price was $1.7 million.
When St. Mary's closed, the once-thriving congregation had dwindled to a couple dozen people, Bilinski said. A deconsecration service was held to close the church and remove religious items, including statues and vestments, he said.
One thing was left behind — a statue of Mary that stood on the church grounds.
Wilson said it was not something that his 175-member Protestant church could use.
"We saw that and we, not being Catholic and at the same time being religious, we thought, what are we going to do?" he said.
Fortunately, Wilson said, a man who had done work at his home stopped by and asked for the blue and white figure.
"That was a relief," Wilson said.
"We were definitely not going to throw her away. Things have really worked out well for us."
His church used much of its savings, $150,000, as a down payment for the property, said Wilson, a recently retired administrator for the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Before retirement, he had been what is termed a bivocational, or dual career, preacher.
"It appears as if God said, 'You finally let that other job go and I have something for you to do.' And all of a sudden, it started falling into place," he said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.