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Pastor returns to past glory

On Sunday, the Rev. Priit Rebane will return to what he once described as "wild and woolly Pasco County."

As part of a monthlong 25th anniversary celebration, King of Glory Lutheran Church has invited its former pastors to return to the pulpit as guest speakers. This week's guest, Rebane, is the founding pastor of King of Glory and current pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Port Charlotte.

After developing a mission church in Fort Worth, Texas, Rebane was asked by the mission board if he wanted to do another. When he answered yes, they said how about one in New Port Richey, Fla.?

"They couldn't even tell me where the town was," says Rebane. "Port Richey was on the map so I assumed that New Port Richey must be next door. It was 1968 and all the natives were giddy with excitement because U.S. 19 had just been four-laned."

How things change.

Rebane canvassed local neighborhoods to find out if there was sufficient interest in a church.

"I went house to house, street by street, following moving vans. There was sufficient interest and we rented the Gulf Harbors Community Center and started holding worship services. That was the beginning. The church office was in my house and my wife Judy was going nutso with the traffic going in and out," Rebane said.

The church was organized as a congregation in 1969, and soon after, the first building was completed for use as the sanctuary. In five years the church grew to 500 members.

The colorful life and career of Rebane and his family have been chronicled at various times by this newspaper and an update is due. But before that a little history.

When Rebane was 7, he and his family, including father Hans who was also a Lutheran minister, fled from Estonia to escape the approaching troops from the Soviet Union. Their journey began with the urging of a German soldier who was a house guest. When the decision was made, the family moved swiftly, grabbing three suitcases and leaving the dinner dishes on the table. The soldier got them on a ship that was evacuating retreating troops.

Next stop was a Polish work camp which the family managed to flee when Mrs. Rebane bribed a soldier with a vat of butter she had hidden.

In the following years, the family just tried to survive, sometimes scavenging food from garbage cans, all the while trying to keep ahead of the advancing Soviets. While they were in a camp for displaced people, the opportunity came to enter the United States. Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg wanted to sponsor a refugee pastor. Not knowing about Florida's St. Petersburg, the family was initially confused, thinking they might be going to Leningrad, the Russian city that once had born the same name.

Relocating to Florida, the two boys enrolled in school and the Rev.

Hans Rebane became assistant pastor at Trinity.

Years later Trinity would become home to a second Rebane, Hans' son, Priit, who had obtained a doctorate in ministry and served in churches in Pennsylvania, Texas and New Port Richey.

Now for an update:

Rebane reports that Judy continues to teach seventh-grade math in St. Petersburg, making a weekly commute from Port Charlotte. Son Mike is married and working toward a computer engineering degree at the University of South Florida and son Scott is enrolled at St. Petersburg Junior College.

But the story isn't complete just yet. Last year, Rebane and his brother, Henn, and their then-85-year-old mother, returned to Estonia for a two-week visit. (Rebane's father had died as a result of an automobile accident 10 years ago.)

"It was nostalgia in the classic sense of the word," Rebane said. "'I was 7 when we left and Communist rule really did a number on these nations."

"We landed in the capital city, and that alone was quite an experience. To touch down and see where I was born. Grass was growing in the cracks of the airport runway. There was no other plane traffic. The terminal building was in early Stalinist dilapidation.

"Then the next thing we know there are about 15 people standing with flowers, waving their hands. Some were relatives I didn't even know we had. My mother was in shock. She had met most of them but when they were still small children.

"We went back to the farming area where my dad was from. My dad's birthplace (the house), was still there. It had become part of the collective farm system but now my uncle was living there. He had celebrated his 100th birthday several years ago. Time stood still.

"The saddest thing of the result of fifty years of Soviet occupation is that the work ethic, which was once so holy for the Estonian people, has been taken away and watered down. Generally speaking, the younger generation doesn't have the desire to work. One man said that the most destructive thing was to "rape away the desire to work.' "

Despite his sorrow over the state of his homeland, which includes the crime and corruption that have come along with the rebuilding, Rebane has high hopes.

"We have to remember Estonia was the most progressive of the formerly captive nations. I attended a Rotary Club meeting there and one man was talking about a special Estonian cheese he would like to market around the world. Optimism and hope are rampant."

It is evident that Rebane's ties to his past run deep and he is looking forward to his King of Glory homecoming. His closing remark tells the story.

"When you give birth to a congregation it's like a woman giving birth to a child. It will always be your love. It's like coming back home."

Rebane's 10 a.m. sermon at King of Glory will be followed by a noon banquet at Spartan Manor. For information, call the church at (813) 849-1513. The church is at 4820 Floramar Ter.

This account contains information from Times stories from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.