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Return home completes life's circle of faith

A fountain here is at the center of a small controversy. New, young arrivals to this seaside village in North Pinellas want to dismantle the fountain and replace it with a gazebo and a swing set for their children.

They cannot recall when water ran through it.

But Charles Altman remembers when the fountain held goldfish. As one of the children raised in Crystal Beach at the Faith Mission orphanage, he played under the oaks that surround the fountain, swam in the gulf and learned his lessons in what is now the Olde Schoolhouse Restaurant.

He never dreamed he would be back 60 years later as caretaker of Faith Mission.

"It's amazing how these things do work out," Altman says.

Things, it seemed, always did work out for Faith Mission. Founded by a minister and his wife, the mission is aptly named. For three decades, beginning in 1923, it raised about 100 children of various ages until they were old enough to be on their own.

The mission received no state support or regular funding. It got by on faith.

"They strongly believed as missionaries what the Bible says: If you pray for what you need, the Lord will provide," Altman said, citing the founders' guiding passage, Philippians 4:19.

Today, Faith Mission endures, but with a different focus that is somehow appropriate given its beginnings. It provides housing for low-income elderly residents. They live on the same beautiful gulffront property where the Faith Mission children were raised a half-century ago.

Altman, who is 68, returned not as one of the residents, but as administrator of Faith Mission. He has been back since 1989, when Irene "Daudie" Markert, daughter of the mission founders, died after a lifetime of serving her parents' vision.

The organization's mission has evolved in Altman's absence, and so has Altman. A tall, thin man with a deep voice and a lightly teasing manner, he used to work with Boy Scouts and ran a girls' camp. Now he calls himself a strong proponent for the elderly.

Altman marvels at how Faith Mission survived on donations, but he doubts the same support would be forthcoming for its residents today.

"You can take and solicit money for the care of children, but try and go out and solicit money for the care of the elderly," he said recently, nodding toward one Faith Mission resident, who leaned on a cane as she made her way across a terrazzo floor.

Faith Mission now has 18 units in a main lodge, and several cottages. But one room and bath are always kept open, in case one of "the children" comes to visit.

Rocks under the azaleas

Altman is in touch with about a dozen of the Faith Mission children, and a couple of them serve with him on the mission's board of directors. Some of the children have died, of course, and those who do stop by are grandparents now.

Altman has nothing but the best memories of growing up at the orphanage.

"There wasn't ever a time in my life I wanted to leave or even regretted being here," he said. "Always look back with pleasure."

He was 3 months old when his mother gave him up in 1928 after his father had left her. Altman lived at Faith Mission until he was 15.

His is a typical story for the mission, which took in children from financially strapped families. One grandmother turned over a family of eight after their mother died, and one baby came to the mission when he was less than 2 hours old.

They had a routine growing up, Altman recalled. There was a time to eat, to study, to play and to do chores. All the children had musical training, and all were exposed to religion, attending various churches.

Old photos show well-scrubbed, well-clothed children in various settings still recognizable in Crystal Beach. The old fountain shows up in some pictures, but the mission's main hall, the former Blue Heron Hotel, was torn down about 1956. Today's lodge was built in its place a few years later.

Behind the lodge and under a thicket of azaleas, rocks still remain from a long-gone pond and waterfall the children played around. Altman remembers the white doves Faith Mission founder Fred Markert kept in a dove house there.

"Every once in a while, when he'd go to feed them, they'd get out, and it'd be our pleasure to try and catch them," Altman said.

The boys also liked to chase the goat Markert kept because someone told him goat's milk would be good for his ailing stomach.

At its peak in Crystal Beach, Faith Mission housed about 85 children.

The mission was founded in Tampa in 1923 by Markert and his wife, Cora, fresh from three years of missionary work in the Canary Islands. In 1928, the same year Altman arrived, the Markerts moved the mission to Crystal Beach because they thought it was a more suitable place to raise children.

The children called the Markerts "Mama" and "Papa," Altman said.

The mission's history is documented in fascinating detail in scrapbooks and binders. Overflowing with photos, newspaper articles, letters, poems and sheet music, the books were painstakingly compiled by Mrs. Markert, her daughter Irene and now Altman.

One diary entry by Fred Markert sounded a dire note in the mission's earliest days. On Jan. 27, 1923, Markert wrote: "God has not seen fit to send any more funds yet. We don't know what His gracious purpose in withholding is, but are sure it is for some good."

Eventually, and sometimes with divine timing, their needs were always met. The Markerts did not solicit funds, accepting only voluntary donations.

"All you could do is say one miracle after another took place," Altman said. "It was not normal what took place."

Mission accomplished

In Crystal Beach, the mission thrived, growing by children and property. Through more timely donations and land swaps, the mission acquired the entire block where the Lodge now sits and much of the land surrounding Live Oak Park on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

The youngest children lived in the Blue Heron Hotel, and the boys were housed in the old Crystal Inn. The girls' dormitory was the yellow brick house still standing behind Crystal Beach Community Church.

On the south side of Crystal Beach, where Point Seaside since has been built, the Markerts bought an old YMCA camp and moved the older boys' sleeping quarters there.

One of Markert's sons drew the plans for Crystal Beach Community Church, and the mission built the church and donated it to the congregation in the '60s, Altman said.

As a home for homeless children, Faith Mission was phased out beginning in the early 1940s. The Markerts stopped taking in new children after the state pressured them to supply a budget and account for their funds.

"Their complaint was, Mr. Markert wasn't able to give them a financial report stating or showing there was a prudent reserve fund," Altman said. "No, it came in as we needed it. The Lord provided. They couldn't understand it."

Cora Markert died in 1939 and Fred Markert in 1948. Irene Markert carried the mission through the next four decades with the help of a faithful assistant who also since has died, Esther Hadley.

Through the '50s, as the population of orphaned children dwindled, Faith Mission provided Bible clubs and a free summer camp for local underprivileged youths.

The last Faith Mission child grew up and was sent on her way about 1957. About that same time, Faith Mission became the retirement home it is today.

The records about the children's origins have been destroyed, Altman said, although he eventually located his biological parents. By the time he found them, his mother had died.

Altman is proud of his past. After leaving Faith Mission, he finished high school, joined the Navy, married and settled in Polk County. He owned a paint store, moved to Connecticut to run the girls' camp and worked in the aircraft industry.

He has three grown sons, and he and his wife, Wanda, figure they are in Crystal Beach to stay. They live in a two-bedroom cottage facing the gulf that once was used for classes and as a dormitory.

"I want to be a part of making sure of the continuity of Faith Mission," Altman said.

Board members are working with Crystal Beach Community Church to make sure the mission continues with the intent and spirit of its founders, he said. The mission hopes to add four rooms to the Lodge to accommodate more elderly residents.

For Altman, life has come full circle. He pampers the 80- and 90-year-old ladies who live in the Lodge. He shares meals with them and leaves them daily inspirational thoughts on a chalkboard.

He feels he was led back to Faith Mission. It was his calling.

"I feel life is complete with me," he said. "I am satisfied with life when I see happiness here."

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