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Seminary ends its wandering with a campus it can keep

As they bounced from small rental space to rental space through the years, officials of St. Petersburg Theological Seminary dreamed of having a permanent campus.

The school's 30,000-volume library was scattered among churches that agreed to help with storage. Its classrooms were cramped. The seminary had trouble spreading the word about its programs.

Then, one day in May, Vicky Lee, an assistant professor, called a friend in the real estate business. She asked her friend to be on the lookout for property that would be suitable for a small college campus.

What kind of building? Lee's friend asked.

"I said that we had looked at the Suncoast Children's Theater building five years ago, but we couldn't afford it," Lee said. "There was this silence on the line. Then she said, "We listed that today.'


Last week, the 13-year-old seminary began moving into the former theater at 10830 Navajo Drive, just north of the Madeira Beach Causeway, a building that originally was home to the United World Mission organization.

"Now this is ours, praise God," Lee said. "It thrills me to know that it has returned to God's service."

St. Petersburg Theological Seminary got its start in 1983 in a classroom at the First Evangelical Baptist Church near downtown St. Petersburg. It later moved to Central Avenue, then to the Notre Dame complex of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, then to an office off Pasadena Avenue.

It is registered with the state as a religious college and authorized to confer religious degrees. The state does not require accreditation, but President Wellington Whittlesey said the school is working toward accreditation by the Transnational Association of Christian Schools.

"I had not felt we should seek accreditation until we were ready for it," Whittlesey said.

The school wants to be involved in the community, Lee said. It plans to offer library cards to area ministers so they can use the school's collection in preparing sermons.

It also plans to host free community lectures and Bible study groups, she said. It also will lead study tours to Israel and Egypt.

And it hopes to draw community volunteers to help get the new campus off the ground.

The seminary spent almost all its money for the down payment on the $190,000 building, Lee said, so it is scavenging for furniture, carpet, shelves and anything else it can find.

Last week, volunteers were painting walls with paint from the $2-a-gallon table at Sears.

"It's a tremendous leap of faith that we're here," Lee said.

The seminary is evangelical, according to its "Statement of Faith," and teaches that the Bible is the infallible word of God.

The school, which offers bachelor's and master's degrees, has 125 students studying religion and religious education. Courses include Hebrew, Greek, the sociology of religion, church administration, music history and literature, and the Jewish roots of the Bible.

The interdenominational school has a wide range of religious affiliations among its leaders.

Whittlesey is a Quaker, the 81st minister in his family. The school's vice president, John Fischer, is a Messianic rabbi.

"We put a strong emphasis on Hebraic studies," Lee said. "In this school, we try very hard to make people understand that Jesus was a Jew .


. and anti-Semitism is wrong. We need to understand that Judaism is part of our faith."

The faculty includes 23 people with doctoral degrees. Those degrees were earned at Christian colleges and at such institutions as Vanderbilt University, Yale University, the University of South Florida and New York University, according to the school's literature.

Each of the six inhabited continents is represented on the faculty, Whittlesey said, with professors from Australia, Ireland, Ghana, Brazil and Israel and the United States.

"Just because we're small,doesn't mean we don't have very long-reaching arms in the Christian community," he said.