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Multicultural church marks its 75th year

With feasting and speeches and the four-day Southside Springfest, St. Joseph's Catholic Church celebrates its accomplishments.

On any given Sunday, St. Joseph's Catholic Church celebrates its diversity _ white, African-American, Caribbean, Asian.

The red brick structure, recently renovated, stands stately and serene on a drab and busy thoroughfare. A few blocks south, one can see the parish preschool, a thriving hub of nearly 200 youngsters.

This weekend, the 75-year-old parish at 2101 22nd Ave. S will celebrate its survival and accomplishments with speeches, feasting and ritual. Tonight, Judge Charles R. Wilson, of the U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, will give the keynote address at a sold-out jubilee dinner. Sunday, Bishop Robert N. Lynch will be the principal celebrant at the 9 a.m. Mass. And the celebration will continue later this month, when the church will hold a four-day carnival on the grounds of its preschool.

But the Rev. Callist Nyambo, St. Joseph's Tanzania-born priest, makes this point: "The jubilee is not just this one dinner and this one month. It's this whole year.

"A church being present in the area has got a function. It has got a spiritual and social function and ours has been that," he said of St. Joseph's, which is an advocate for social justice issues and home to a mentoring program.

Those who contemplate St. Joseph's time line cannot miss the effects of desegregation on one of St. Petersburg's oldest Catholic churches. Founded in a different era, the church and its elementary school initially served white residents in what was a white neighborhood. As the neighborhood changed, African-Americans started attending the church. The numbers increased when the black Catholic mission parish, Immaculate Conception, at 16th Street and Ninth Avenue S, closed in the mid-1980s.

Today the former St. Joseph's School, at 2100 26th Ave. S., which closed in 1985 because of lack of enrollment, houses the Immaculate Conception Early Childhood Center. The preschool, with a St. Joseph's statue that beckons passers-by and a scenic view of Lake Maggiore, opens its doors at 6:30 a.m.

Wednesday morning, a few early arrivals in Mary Calloway's class greeted a visitor in English and Spanish. And Mrs. Calloway, a parishioner at St. Joseph's, smiled as little Erica Wells rushed to a window to blow goodbye kisses to her departing mother.

Down the outdoor hall, Immaculate Conception's director, Rita Jackson, spoke about the school she has headed for 17 years.

"We're pretty much a year-round school," said Mrs. Jackson. "The demand is so great. This is the first year that we are working through Holy Week, except for Holy Thursday and Good Friday."

The school teaches "basic Christian values" rather than specific Catholic doctrine, she said. Days begin and end with prayer, Mrs. Jackson said, and grace always is said before meals.

A few blocks north, Nyambo was celebrating weekday Mass for a small gathering of regulars. Sundays are different, as the ranks of parishioners often swell with visitors, many of them excited to hear the gospel choir, which sings at the 9 a.m. Mass.

"The way we do our liturgy, the way we do things, the way we celebrate in itself has been an attraction," Nyambo said. "We have a vibrant choir which is invited everywhere and when we are invited out, naturally people come back to see us."

The congregation of 500 has continued to grow for several other reasons, he said. Some former parish school students have returned.

Furthermore, he said, "The fact that there is a multicultural congregation has helped people to feel at home."

The church, Nyambo said, offers a Vietnamese service at 4 p.m. on Sundays that is celebrated by the Rev. Pierre Pham.

St. Joseph's diversity is what attracted Nancy Shannon and her husband, Bob, whose newest grandchild recently was baptized at the church.

"We've been there six years," said Mrs. Shannon, chairwoman of tonight's banquet.

They had belonged to St. John Vianney on St. Pete Beach for 33 years, she said.

"We loved it and raised our children through the school there, but one day someone said, "Have you heard the gospel music at St. Joseph's Church?' " Mrs. Shannon said.

"Well, we went there one Sunday, but what touched us _ and the music was wonderful _ I saw black, white, Vietnamese, praising God together and holding hands and hugging each other, and I said, "This is the way the world was supposed to be.' And up to that point, I had a lot of Protestant friends, a lot of Jewish friends, but I didn't have any black friends. But now I do and I like it."

Nora Folkers, coordinator of the silent auction that will take place during the banquet, said she and her husband, Rich, had been attending St. Joseph's "on and off" for several years. She joined the church six months ago.

"There is just a wonderful spirit there," she said.

As St. Joseph's celebrates its jubilee, Nyambo says the parish must look ahead.

"St. Joseph's is a good parish. . . . As we go on, we hope to reach out to the community. We hope to find ways to make the community more church-centered. One of my aspirations is that I look forward to working with other churches in the neighborhood."