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50 years later, a church's vision endures

Sitting at a dining table in her immaculate mobile home, Arlene Steih set aside the stack of Christmas cards she had been rereading and gave full attention to the memories half-century past.

She spoke of her late husband, the Rev. William E. Steih, and the church he started on the edge of Sheffield Lake in Disston Heights. That congregation, Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church, at 2601 49th St. N, was the first established in Florida by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a theologically conservative branch of the Lutheran Church. Founded to serve growing numbers of Lutherans moving from the upper Midwest, the St. Petersburg church went on to start what is now known as Northdale Lutheran in Tampa as well as Bay Pines Lutheran near Seminole Mall.

On Sunday, Faith Evangelical Lutheran will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a 3 p.m. service and a 50-foot submarine sandwich to feed its guests from around the Tampa Bay area. Mrs. Steih, 94, still a member of the church her husband founded, will attend the special service with two of her children, Judith Wolf, who lives near her in Seminole, and Lois Carver, who has driven up from Fort Lauderdale.

The Rev. Henry Koch, 42, who has been at Faith Evangelical Lutheran since 1999, says the congregation now is a blend of older, longtime members and newer, younger families who have moved into the community. He said membership has declined from more than 200 in the 1960s to about 50 regular worshipers on Sundays. Mrs. Steih, though, says she believes Koch is well on the way to reviving the church.

"We are beginning to see new growth because of the canvassing he's doing. He sure works hard," she said, mentioning a man Koch converted and eventually baptized a day before his death.

"It's an ongoing challenge to meet the new people of the neighborhood," said Koch, who offers baptismal and confirmation classes to neighborhood children and adults and regularly visits others in the community.

Though a struggle, the church continues its efforts. It offered before- and after-school care until the endeavor became too expensive. The congregation, however, still holds vacation Bible school and summer camp. Koch's neighborhood outreach also includes health fairs and outdoor Christmas Eve and Easter services.

The congregation is part of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the third-largest branch of the Lutheran church in the United States. The synod was founded in 1850 by three German pastors in Milwaukee. Started for Northern European immigrants who settled in the upper Midwest, the Lutheran branch continues to be strongest there.

"Typically, its strength has been in suburban and rural areas," said Koch, whose great-grandfather, a German immigrant, was recruited to become a pastor in the new synod.

"He graduated exactly 100 years before I did at the same seminary in Wisconsin," Koch said.

"I'm the fourth generation of pastors. My 4-year-old son insists on becoming a pilot."

Charged with starting a new church for Lutherans moving to the Tampa Bay area, Steih, his wife and three of their six children left Kawkawlin, Mich., and settled in St. Petersburg in 1954. Her husband was excited by the venture, Mrs. Steih said Monday afternoon.

"That's just what he wanted. He was a mission man," she said.

Starting a church from scratch meant finding a congregation as well as a building in which to meet.

"We always looked for high ground," Mrs. Steih said, recalling that the search usually was planned after heavy rains.

They eventually found land near Sheffield Lake. It was owned by a lumber business that was planning to relocate, Mrs. Steih said. The church also purchased the model home nearby for a parsonage.

Until the new church was built, the congregation met at Mount Vernon Elementary School. About 70 people attended the first service at the school on Jan. 9, 1955. For a while, Lutherans came from as far away as Tampa to worship at the new church. They eventually wanted a congregation of their own. Steih led the Tampa services on Sunday evenings, his widow said.

"It would take us about an hour to get there and an hour to get back. Then the next church we started was Bay Pines Lutheran."

For a while, her husband led early Sunday morning service at Bay Pines Lutheran before heading to Faith Lutheran and then later in the day to the Tampa church. Steih died in 1971, after serving for a short period at another new church, this time in Miami. He was 66. For his widow, who has 21 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren, the decision to move back to the Tampa Bay area and Faith Lutheran was simple. It was like going back home, she said. During her husband's tenure she had served as the church's organist. She returned to that role.

These days what was the original church building now serves as the fellowship hall. In it is displayed an architect's rendering of the congregation's long held dream of a larger church with a chapel for weddings and funerals. The present church, which seats 150 and was built in 1971, is across the street on two acres.

The church that was a pioneer for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Florida is facing challenges today. It does not have the advantage of a grade school like Bay Pines Lutheran Church, but its pastor says it continues to share the unchanging message of God's love with its neighbors.

"The Lord has blessed hundreds of people as members of the family at Faith over the past 50 years," Koch said.

"God willing, many more in our community will find peace, comfort and joy here in the message of Christ crucified. It's our privilege to serve our community and we're excited for the future."