Catholics living in northwest Hillsborough County in 1963 got their first chance to attend Mass here: in the cafeteria of Carrollwood Public School. Now, 27 years later, things have changed. Dale Mabry Highway is no meandering country thoroughfare. Housing subdivisions now dominate where cows once grazed. And St. Paul's Catholic Church is building a $2.6-million church to serve a parish of 2,435 families.
"Hardly a day went by in the last seven or eight years that I haven't thought about this," said the Rev. Austin Mullen, who has been parish pastor since 1973. "Everyone's very excited."
St. Paul's, which has occupied a modest-sized church tucked in a cluster of tall oak trees at the corner of N Dale Mabry Highway and Stall Road since 1970, has long outgrown the days when it was the only Catholic church for families living between there and the Pinellas and Pasco county lines.
As the population was booming in northwest Hillsborough and with a growing number of families returning to churches, St. Paul's quickly outgrew its 450 seats. Even two new Catholic churches ministering to the residents of Northdale and Keystone did not ease the crowding completely.
"Right after Christmas this year, we had three choirs here, and they were kind of clustered in one space," said church spokesman Earl Hinson. "By next year, we'll have room for all those choirs and then some."
After years of construction, the parish's grand plans are taking shape. The building, with its capacity to hold 842 people for services, a two-tiered Baptismal font and 40-foot vaulted altar ceilings, is finally becoming reality.
Church officials said they are especially proud of the 65-foot-tall bell tower, which will include a bell from a church that was bombed in Germany during World War II, Mullen said.
"The church bell calls people to worship _ it's the sound of good news," Mullen said.
As construction nears completion, officials hope to have a walk-through for parishioners in March with services planned for June.