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BETHANY TEMPLE CHURCH OF GOD // 80 years old and growing

It began with a tent revival at Grosse and Pent streets in 1915 and became a simple wood-frame church. There were seven women and one man, hardy sorts who walked, rode and sailed up to eight miles each way for Sunday services.

Today, Bethany Temple Church of God calls more than 350 to worship in a stone and concrete sanctuary at 401 N Disston Ave. And there is a larger building on the way.

Church members will reflect on the past and plan for the future during the church's 80th-anniversary celebration Oct. 8-11.

Its history is intertwined with Tarpon Springs' development. One member wrote a book on the history of the city. Others were business owners who helped shape downtown. The Pent family has a street named after it.

In fact, Dorothy Pent was in her mother's womb during that first tent revival. Now 81, she and her husband Herman, 79, are among those members who were alive at the church's humble beginnings.

They recall 1920s-era Tarpon Springs with sand roads and wooden sidewalks, when the main attraction was going "uptown" on Saturday night _ that meant Tarpon Avenue, which then existed only between the bayou and Ring Avenue.

The settlers would shop at Register's grocery and Webster's Drug Store. The old Pappas' restaurant was a few blocks down Dodecanese Boulevard from its present site.

"I remember a plate of lamb stew was 35 cents," said Herman Pent with a chuckle.

Pent's father, Robert Pent, wrote A History of Tarpon Springs in the 1940s. Copies are now hard to find.

While stopping by the church this week, the Pents recalled the first wooden sanctuary. It was square and plain with a pot-bellied stove and kerosene lamps. Believers were baptized in the Anclote River.

"It was like a lot of country churches," said Dorothy Pent. "When you had a revival or a meeting, everyone would bring a covered dish and eat under a tree or in the yard."

Getting there was difficult. The official church history describes one founding member who walked to church four miles each way, twice a week. Another member, Georgia Ann Sawyer, regularly drove her five children in a horse and wagon from Elfers, in southwest Pasco County.

When her husband balked, she and her children walked.

By the early 1930s, members built a second sanctuary, followed by a third in the mid-1940s. It is still used today.

Drawing members from a wide area prompted the church to begin a bus ministry in the 1950s, using a delivery truck. A more organized effort began in 1974. Since then, Bethany Temple estimates its buses have taken 100,000 riders _ many of them repeaters _ to its Sunday School.

Over the years, the church has added other ministries: a day-care center, a kindergarten and a first grade. It is awaiting the county's approval to open an adult congregate living facility on Keystone Road.

"This will help us expand our ministry, a much-needed ministry, and it will help us build our new sanctuary," said the Rev. Donald DeFino, Bethany Temple's pastor.

By the end of the year, church leaders expect to begin constructing a multi-purpose building on the Keystone Road property. It will serve as a worship center until they can afford to add a new sanctuary.

So there are chapters still unwritten in the church's history. But the latest edition, Roots to Wings, is at the printer now. It stresses the multi-generational ties within the church and its small-town home.

"The children and grandchildren of the settlers are still a part of this church," said church historian Larry Smith. "It's always been tied to the community, and that's precious to me."

IF YOU GO

Bethany Temple Church of God will celebrate its 80th anniversary at 10:30 a.m. Sunday services and at Homecoming services 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. The church is at 401 N Disston Ave. For information, call 937-3871.

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