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Tampa’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church celebrates 150 years

It was founded with the help of the Episcopalian priest who translated ‘Silent Night’ to English.
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in downtown Tampa celebrates its 150th anniversary this month.
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in downtown Tampa celebrates its 150th anniversary this month. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jul. 15, 2021
Updated Jul. 16, 2021

TAMPA — The story of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church begins with Silent Night.

John Freeman Young earned renown as the Episcopalian priest who translated the popular Christmas carol from its original German to English.

When he was later elected the second Bishop of Florida, Tampa was among his stops during a tour of the state.

Those who attended his Tampa service later organized as St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on July 24, 1871.

This month marks its 150th anniversary.

“I don’t think a lot of people know about us,” said Richard Ferlita, the treasurer of the board for the downtown church at 509 E Twiggs St. “We are Tampa’s hidden treasure.”

Today, the church has around 700 parishioners, Ferlita said, who come from as far as Clearwater and Wesley Chapel.

But it started with two parishioners.

“The cool thing about St. Andrew’s is that it grew with Tampa,” church historian Nancy Turner said. “And like Tampa, we started small and expanded slowly to what we are today.”

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in downtown Tampa.
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in downtown Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

According to the church’s history book, God Was With Us, written by Canter Brown Jr., Bishop Young came to Tampa in February 1868 as part of his effort to rebuild and expand Florida’s Episcopal parishes after the Civil War.

Two soldiers stationed at the Fort Brooke military installation were the only Episcopalians the bishop could find in Tampa, according to Brown. Still, the bishop promised to return and hold a service the next month.

The soldiers promoted the service and “when the bishop came back through, a bunch of people showed up,” Turner said. “The bishop baptized them all.”

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The service was held at a local Methodist church, according to Brown, and members continued to meet in various places — Fort Brooke, private homes and the Orange Grove Hotel that was located on the northwest corner of Madison and East streets.

In 1871, the bishop designated the group an official “mission,” wrote Brown.

It’s unknown why they chose St. Andrew, but Turner said it was likely due to Tampa’s connection to the fishing industry at the time.

“Fishermen lived along the shores of Hillsborough Bay,” she is quoted as saying in Brown’s book. “Each day, the early Florida fishermen would cast their nets into the waters for food and for a living just as St. Andrew and his brother Simon Peter did so many years ago on the Sea of Galilee.”

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Brown provides another possibility in his history book.

St. Andrew was “associated closely” with Scotland, he wrote, and Scottish-born James McKay, considered one of the founding fathers of Tampa, was among the church’s early financial supporters.

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Another benefactor was John P. Wall, a doctor and future Tampa mayor. Wall wed McKay’s daughter Matilda in 1872 in what Brown wrote was the “first Episcopal marriage in Tampa’s history.”

In 1876, Wall helped secure St. Andrew’s the downtown lots needed for their first church building, wrote Brown. Made of wood, the first service there was held in 1883.

The original wooden building for St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Tampa.
The original wooden building for St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Tampa. [ Courtesy of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church ]

It is a “small one,” wrote the Tampa Guardian that year, ”but so constructed that it can easily be enlarged.”

An addition was built a few years later. It included a tower with four bells weighing a total of 2,100 pounds, Brown wrote.

The bishop elevated St. Andrew’s from a mission to a parish in 1884, according to Brown, the same year that the railroad arrived in Tampa.

“They probably had around 50 regular parishioners at the time,” said John Reese, the church reverend. “Within a few years, that grew to around 300. So, they needed a new church.”

Completed in 1907 and designed by architects Michael J. Miller and Francis J. Kennard, whose other notable local structures included the Belleview Biltmore Hotel, the 7,000-square-foot church was built for a capacity of 700, according to Brown.

“A magnificent temple had arisen from the struggle and sacrifices of two generations to leave at Tampa a permanent and beautiful monument to commitment and to faith,” Brown wrote.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in downtown Tampa.
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in downtown Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The church’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, on which it was placed in 2009, says the building has a Spanish Renaissance style and is shaped like a cross.

“St. Andrew’s has a superior collection of stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the saints,” the listing reads. “These art works date from throughout the history of the church; some were preserved from the 19th century wood frame Gothic Revival church.”

In 1996, St. Andrew’s further expanded by purchasing the neighboring former Western Union building. Erected in 1929, the 32,000-square-foot structure serves as parish office and event space.

“It’s a fascinating history — from Fort Brooke through today,” the Rev. Reese said. “We have made a big commitment to staying in downtown and flourishing here. We’ve been around for 150 years. We plan on being here for as long as possible.”