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St. Peter's Cathedral puts columbarium project on hold

ST. PETERSBURG — Two years ago, after years of controversy and setbacks, St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral began to convert the former Baptist sanctuary it owned into a columbarium, a place with niches for more than 10,000 cremated remains.

An open house in the spring of 2009 previewed the project, and by the following year work had begun at the property with stately columns across from Williams Park. A website was launched with detailed architectural renderings.

Now, however, months after the columbarium was scheduled to be in use, all is quiet behind a chain-link fence. There are no niches in which to place the urns, and for the time being no internments will be scheduled.

Priorities are being re-examined, said the Very Rev. Stephen Morris, dean of the cathedral at 140 Fourth St. N.

"We're just trying to take a breath and take a pause,'' he said.

The columbarium has not been abandoned, he said. St. Peter's simply wants to focus on its core mission of being a church.

Meanwhile, the columbarium is still "taking reservations'' for the niches, which run from $3,000 to about $6,000, said Sheree Graves, director of the project formally known as the City Peace Garden.

"At first we were actually having them sign reservation contracts, but now I'm just keeping a waiting list,'' Graves said, adding that there is no risk for those who have made deposits.

"The money is in escrow and is 100 percent refundable," she said.

If someone dies before the columbarium is complete, the urn can be stored at a funeral home, at the cathedral or with the family, Graves said.

The decision to build the City Peace Garden came years after St. Peter's bought the adjacent former First Baptist church and its five-story education building for $1 million. The cathedral struggled to sell or develop the property, battling preservationists who wanted to save the historic neoclassical sanctuary from demolition.

The two sides eventually agreed on a plan that would let St. Peter's demolish the back of the former church, leaving intact the facade — with its landmark 30-foot Greek revival columns — and a 40-foot-deep section of the building.

The $1.5 million project ran over budget when it was discovered that extra work would be required to shore up the section of the structure that remained standing. The additional construction also affected the original layout of the niches.

"People want to buy specifically in a certain place …. We've just kind of pushed a pause button,'' said Morris. He took over leadership at the cathedral late in 2008 as its $7.5 million expansion and redevelopment project — including the columbarium — was already under way.

While the City Peace Garden was conceived as a way to expand St. Peter's ministry "to reach out to all of God's people,'' Morris said, the parish has to use its resources wisely.

"We feel like all the right people are in place, and we know all we want to do as a church in terms of outreach and evangelism, so that could change what we want to do with the space we have," he said. "So that is what we have to examine right now. We're trying to do what's right, not just for today in this generation, but for the generations to come.''

The cathedral's new and renovated space has become a busy venue for a range of daily activities, Morris said, and as that continues, the church also wants to rent its new, vacant second- and third-floor space. A portion of the peace garden property will likely be needed for parking and green space, he said.

"We just kind of have to be very deliberate and steady in our movement forward. What if a tenant came in and said, this is great, we need a certain amount of space for a garden and playground?'' he said.

"We've got that blank slate over there.''

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Time line

1990 First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg leaves its downtown location and moves to Gandy Boulevard. St. Peter's Cathedral buys the old Baptist property, which includes the church and educational building, for $1 million.

1994 Former Baptist sanctuary designated a local historic landmark.

2001 St. Peter's seeks permission from the St. Petersburg Historic Preservation Commission to tear down the church. Preservationists oppose the proposal. The request is denied twice. Later that year, St. Peter's wins the support of Mayor Rick Baker and the City Council agrees to let the cathedral demolish the old sanctuary, provided it can show it has the money for any new construction. It is given until December 2004 to raise the money.

2004 The City Council grants a one-year extension to the demolition permit, if the cathedral agrees to preserve the Baptist church's facade.

2005 St. Peter's signs a contract with a developer to build a condominium tower and parking garage on property that includes the old Baptist sanctuary.

2006 The plan hits a stumbling block when the city's Environmental Development Commission says the six-level garage must be enclosed, which will cost more.

2007 The cathedral and the developer end their agreement to build the condominium and garage. A few months later, St. Peter's decides to sell the former Baptist church.

Dec. 2007 The cathedral begins demolition of some of its buildings for new offices, fellowship and meeting space.

Feb. 2008 WRH Princess Martha LLC signs a contract to buy the former Baptist church for $1.1 million. It wants to raze the property. Preservationists oppose that plan, and two months later the former Baptist sanctuary goes back on the market.

June 2008 St. Peter's and preservationists reach an agreement to save the façade of the former church.

May 2009 St. Peter's announces a plan to build its City Peace Garden.

St. Peter's Cathedral puts columbarium project on hold 03/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 6:19pm]

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