Shortly after the turn of the century, St. Petersburg was a city of just 4,000 souls. In order to attract snowbirds, some civic leaders said, the town needed a Lutheran church. So nine founding families got together to make that happen, and Trinity Lutheran was born in 1911.
On Friday, the “small but mighty” downtown congregation celebrated its 110th anniversary, having gone through two world wars and now two pandemics, but with its sights set on the future.
“We are still here today, committed to serving God, our neighbors and creating the kind of place God would want,” the pastor, Rev. Paul Gibson, said as about 25 parishioners gathered to mark the milestone.
The church began meeting in a room above Ramm’s Garage, an auto shop run by one of the founders, F.W. Ramm, a German immigrant. After that, it moved to a property on Fifth Street and Second Avenue S that was later sold to the YMCA.
Construction soon began on its current building at Fifth Street and Fourth Avenue N, with its stained glass windows imported from Germany, pipe organ and a sanctuary that could seat more than 400.
When the first services were held there in October 1924, the size of the congregation had grown to about 200 members. Five years later, it had more than 330 members.
Today, even as downtown’s population surges with the construction of new condos, the congregation has remained small. Gibson said things are different from “back in the day when everyone had to go to church or wanted to go to church or wanted to be seen at church.”
Before the pandemic, Trinity Lutheran had 70 to 80 regular members. Since then, Gibson has recorded sermons and posted services online each week. He’s not sure how many members will come back, but the church hopes to reopen its doors at some point over the summer.
He tells parishioners to see the church as a “gas station,” a place to refuel, but that the other six days a week were more important to live their faith.
When Gibson was called to serve as pastor in 2014, he was the first openly gay Lutheran pastor in the area, he said. Later that year, the church voted to become a Reconciling in Christ church, one that embraces and advocates for the LGBTQ community.
The congregation was largely older, with some people now in their 70s who have been life-long members, Gibson said. And he thinks it was a courageous leap for some of them.
“We’re old-fashioned in terms of worship but progressive in terms of ministry,” Gibson said. “This congregation has made a real commitment to being a diverse community of faith, race, gender, sexuality and immigration status.”
In more recent years, the church has come to be known for its hot meals served on Saturday mornings for more vulnerable communities. Though the meals stopped during the pandemic, the church maintains an active food pantry. It’s also been home to the oldest Alcoholics Anonymous group in Pinellas County.
“Trinity Lutheran Church is a beacon of hope for so many in this city,” City Council member Ed Montanari said Friday, reading from a proclamation on behalf of Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Chris Burtless, 54, of Bradenton, started attending the church about five years ago. He had remembered seeing the building as a student at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus almost 35 years ago.
“It means a lot,” said Burtless, a high school history teacher in Manatee County. “It’s good to see some history in St. Petersburg continuing with a lot of change and development. This church has also been really great at changing with the times and serving its community.”
After Friday’s celebration, Gibson and the attending parishioners recorded a procession that would begin the Palm Sunday services. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has transitioned services online and to a park. He said he hopes to be able to reopen the church sometime over the summer and invite the public for lectures and concerts.
Though much has changed in the church’s surroundings, Gibson said the spirit of the founders remains the same.
“They were always looking to the future,” he said. “And so are we now.”