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Church saves paintings' home

When the roof of the city's oldest church, Unitarian Universalist Church, started springing leaks several years ago, its tiny congregation began to say a few extra prayers.

The church, which was founded in 1885, before Tarpon Springs became a city, was in jeopardy.

So was the church's prized possession, a collection of 11 meditative landscapes and religious scenes painted by the church community's famed resident artist, George Inness Jr.

The small and aging congregation of about 80 feared that its beloved paintings would have to be moved to a museum if the 88-year-old church building could not be fixed.

But the church has been blessed with a $21,500 state historic preservation grant and about $65,000 in donations that have accumulated from its congregation over several decades.

With the money in hand, work to replace the church's metal-shingled roof began two weeks ago.

"We are very lucky," said Bill Gladwin, a congregation member who is overseeing the project.

"Our church has existed for over 100 years. And the members of our church have been thrifty and frugal all of that time, always paying the bills and setting a little bit aside for an emergency. Now we're going spend a little of that."

The small congregation had set aside about $250,000 in wills and donations to the church over the decades. Some of that money is being used for the roof emergency.

The church members are relieved that the paintings by Inness, who lived from 1854 to 1926, will stay in the building for which they were created.

Leaks have been common in the church, especially beneath the bell tower. Heavy rains threatened to collapse the ceiling, so one of Inness paintings was moved temporarily. The church also has dealt with termites.

"If the paintings weren't going to be ruined, the roof had to be fixed," said the Rev. Glyn Pruce, the church pastor. "We just couldn't lose these works. The cultural heritage of Florida, it isn't so enormous that we can take risks with it."

Inness Jr., the son of the American landscape artist George Inness Sr., painted the first three to replace several stained-glass windows that a hurricane destroyed in 1918.

He then painted six other wooden panels to adorn the church he loved. Two earlier works, which portray Jesus Christ's life and death and once were exhibited in the Louvre in Paris, also hang in the church.

It is the largest collection of his works in existence, since he burned everything from the first 40 years of his life in a fit of frustration in 1894.

Most of the pieces depict peaceful, lush landscapes with "living greens" in different seasons.

The paintings draw thousands of visitors each year, making the church one of Tarpon Springs' most popular tourist attractions.

The visitors are introduced to the work of "our artist," as Inness is lovingly referred by church docents who give guided tours.

"We are really emotionally involved with these paintings," said Dorris Kovalick, who led tourists through the church Tuesday while workers banged around overhead.

"If they were degraded in any way, it would be such a loss. We're all rejoicing that the roof is being fixed."