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CHURCH'S LEADERSHIP MARKS FIRST

A native of Liberia, by way of Cincinnati, is chosen rector of Tampa's St. James.

For months, the congregation at St. James House of Prayer Episcopal church wondered what was in the small gold box with a bow.

They prayed over it. They watched it being placed on the altar. They saw it transported gingerly to vestry meetings.

Its contents were revealed Sept. 13. A tiny wood-framed picture of the Rev. Ernestein Flemister lay inside.

The congregation had been praying over its future.

"She's been with us in spirit for a long time," said Margie Jefferson, a vestry member.

That's how the congregation at the more-than-century-old church on N Central Avenue welcomed its new rector. Flemister, 57, sat in the pews.

The selection marks a notable moment in the church's history.

Flemister is the first black female to lead a church in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, which includes 77 churches.

"It says we're diverse," said Errol Kirk, senior ward at St. James. "And that we're not stuck in a rut."

Flemister comes to the Tampa church from Grace Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, where she served for a little more than two years.

Her life experience makes her particularly well-suited for St. James, she said.

Flemister, her husband and son came to the United States from war-torn Liberia in 1980. Flemister was six months pregnant with her daughter when they landed in the United States.

The family settled in Columbus, Ohio, where her sister-in-law lived. Her husband soon returned to Liberia and began commuting back and forth to the United States.

With every intention of going back to Liberia herself, Flemister earned a degree in finance and human resources from Franklin University, then got a master's in business administration from Xavier University.

"The year I graduated with my MBA, I had started calling companies to move us back," Flemister said.

But with the civil war raging in Liberia, her chances of returning seemed bleak. Flemister's husband later died in Liberia.

Life in the United States wasn't easy. A lawyer in Liberia, Flemister could not practice here because she lacked the appropriate credentials.

"I took what I could get to keep my family going and surviving," she said.

But her spiritual life flourished. Flemister was a lay reader, served in the choir and altar guild, and worked with the acolytes. She began being approached by members who felt she had a calling to preach.

"At first, I didn't take it that serious," said Flemister, who has a casual air with tiny, neat dreadlocks and wire-framed glasses. "It really wasn't until somebody who I didn't know very well came to me and said, 'This is something I see you doing and you need to think about it seriously.'"

Flemister graduated from seminary in 2007 and began serving at Grace shortly after.

It took the St. James community 15 months to find a rector.

The selection committee first surveyed the parish to define its needs. They wanted a spiritual guide who could provide pastoral care, was community oriented, valued diversity and could move the church forward.

Members considered more than a dozen rectors in the United States and the Caribbean.

Flemister's background in business and law were bonuses to her spiritual prowess, said Maisie Reddy, a longtime St. James member who sits on the standing committee of the diocese of Southwest Florida.

St. James House of Prayer is a melding of two historic congregations. St. James Episcopal Church was founded in 1895 by Bahamians and Cubans who had migrated to Tampa to work in the cigar industry. The predominantly white Episcopal House of Prayer Church was established in 1907.

The two churches merged in the late 1990s, a challenging yet ultimately successful endeavor.

St. James House of Prayer now operates an after-school program and has several outreach ministries, including a mission to the Dominican Republic.

While St. James is in the heart of Tampa Heights, it is not the neighborhood church. And its growth remains hindered by a historic, yet too small, sanctuary.

Flemister intends to tackle all the challenges, but she's starting with the basics.

"I'll be getting a sense of what they do, what their vision is going forward," she said. "And what it is that God is calling us to do."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

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