ST. PETERSBURG — It was not unexpected, but Elena Miyares couldn't help being startled when she saw her beloved cathedral in a stage of demolition.
"I had been away for three weeks," she said. "When I came back, it looked like a bomb had hit it. Even though I knew it was coming, it was still a shock."
Miyares, who with her late husband, George, brought up six children attending Mass at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, was not alone in her reaction.
"They kept talking about renovations. I kept thinking they were going to remove some stuff and pull some stuff out or whatever. When we drove up there and I saw the whole building basically gone ... I said, wow, this is serious business," said Jennifer Huffman, a new mother who has attended St. Jude's for about three years and recently became a Catholic with her husband, Jerry.
Huffman and Miyares have high expectations for the $8 million, 12-month project. When complete, the cathedral at 5815 Fifth Ave. N will have new pews, floors, doors, restrooms, baptismal font and roof. The 25,713-square-foot building will be enlarged by over 7,000 square feet and include wider side aisles with alcoves to house shrines.
Bishop Robert Lynch, head of Tampa Bay's almost half-million Catholics, says renovations of the church built in 1963 were long overdue.
"Every one of my predecessors has wanted to make it more of a cathedral," he said. "The church was never designed to be a cathedral. It was under construction well before we were established as a diocese."
And before the end of the Second Vatican Council with its liturgical reforms, which meant relocating the altar so that priests could face the congregation. As part of the renovations at St. Jude's, the large columns that supported the dome above the altar have already been removed. They blocked worshipers' view, Lynch said.
"We are opening it all up," he said of the renewed cathedral, which will retain the same number of seats, 925 in the pews and an additional 300 in flexible seating.
Most important, Lynch said, changes are being made to the sanctuary, or altar area, to accommodate parishioners with physical limitations who read the Scriptures or serve Holy Communion.
Work began on June 4, but not before parishioners had a chance to claim a pew or two. Thomas Piccolo made the trip from Tampa.
"Growing up, I was an altar server through high school and a torchbearer when I was younger, and St. Jude's was a big part of my life. I wanted to own a little piece of it," the 29-year-old political consultant said.
He has since cut the 9-foot pew down to a more manageable 5 feet, added upholstery and given it a place in his Tampa office.
Pews have also made their way to St. James' in Port Richey and missions in Haiti and Nicaragua. Cathedral facilities manager Laurie Jaworski said the pendant light fixtures have gone to St. Benedict's in Crystal River.
Last week, the sounds of a concrete saw reverberated around the fenced-in construction site with its skeletal cathedral and mounds of dirt. Lise Gerdes looks forward to the transformation.
She and her husband, Charlie, and their six children — the eldest is St. Petersburg City Council member Charlie Gerdes — were early parishioners. "I think it's going to be very beautiful," she said.
Son Charlie is on the renovation committee. "I am very, very excited about the renovation, because I think it honors the original design of the church but will create a more intimate atmosphere inside and an opportunity to add sacred art and some other things," he said.
Meanwhile, with the diocese's "mother" church under renovation, St. Catherine of Siena in Clearwater will host events throughout Tampa Bay. St. Jude's congregation has had to adjust to Sunday Mass in the parish center, where wooden chairs have been arranged around an altar.
"It's really kind of cool, because rather than viewing this as 'Oh, what a drag,' everybody has really kind of pitched in and it's kind of bringing us closer together as a congregation," said longtime parishioner Maureen Ahern, who chairs the renovation committee with St. Jude's rector, Father Joseph Waters.
Lynch said he first discussed the project with his priests and diocesan leaders. "Every one of them was unanimous, saying, 'You should do it,' " he said.
Ahern, who is married to state Rep. Larry Ahern, said the renovation committee first met in 2008.
"We were told this is a huge project we're undertaking and never lose sight that this is a spiritual endeavor," she said, adding that the committee also sought input from throughout the diocese that covers Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
Lynch said the work will cost "slightly in excess" of $8 million, with much of it being covered by the sale of property "that we do not foresee needing for ecclesiastical purposes."
The diocese could still carry about $3 million in debt, he said. "My goal when I leave here in four years is to turn over a debt-free diocese," said the bishop, who is 71 and faces mandatory retirement at 75.
But in the tradition of great cathedrals, final touches to the renewed St. Jude's could continue for years to come.
"The cathedral will not be finished when we dedicate it," Lynch said. "Bishops who follow will be adding artwork and stained glass. We will have the worship space intact, but a lot of the decorations will be left to the bishops and parishioners."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.