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100 years ago, this Tampa church was built with stones from the river

The stones that make up the St. James House of Prayer were taken from the river by the parishioners.
 
Exterior view of the century old St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church pictured in Tampa.
Exterior view of the century old St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church pictured in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 15, 2023|Updated March 18, 2023

TAMPA — In a city known for century-old buildings made of brick, the St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church at 2708 N Central Ave. is distinct for being made of rocks.

It stands out today.

And it stood out when completed 100 years ago last month.

“The new rock church ... is perhaps the most unusual and attractive structure of its kind in the South,” wrote the Tampa Tribune in February 1923.

That praise was partly due to its design that mimics British churches from the Middle Ages and partly because of the source of the rocks. Parishioners took them from the Hillsborough River.

“It remains an amazing accomplishment,” said St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church’s Rev. Edward Henley.

But it also remains a mystery.

Today, the church is split on the origin of the rocks.

Were they natural to the river?

Or did they come from elsewhere and were then dropped into the river?

Exterior view of the century old St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church in Tampa.
Exterior view of the century old St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“There are some who wonder if they are ballast rocks,” Henley said.

Ballast rocks were stones that were once used to balance empty ships. Crews then unloaded the rocks into a body of water before picking up cargo.

During pioneering years in coastal communities, those stones were then dredged and used for construction.

In North Carolina and Puerto Rico, the stones can be found in streets near the water.

In Tampa, those rocks provided the name for the South Tampa neighborhood of Ballast Point.

“It is not known when the term first began to be used,” says a 1983 Sunland Tribune article on the history of Ballast Point, “but the name was coined as a point for schooners to drop their ballast of rocks before proceeding through the 7- to 9-foot channel in the Hillsborough Bay to the mouth of the Hillsborough River.”

Church historian Morris Kennedy is among those who believe the rocks were natural to the river.

“The stones are sharp and jagged,” he said. “They look like they may have been blown up a bit. I think they might easily have thrown dynamite into the water” to loosen the rocks from the riverbed.

In their coverage of the construction of the church, then called the Episcopal House of Prayer, the Tampa Tribune wrote that the stones are flint rock with “variegated colors” that were taken from the bed of the river from the “country place of Harry Kennedy,” a former Tampa City Council member. “No known deposit of this kind of rock in any quantity is said to exist anywhere else in the state.”

According to the church’s approved application to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, the stone, also known as chert, is “found naturally in Florida.” It’s in abundance in the northern part of the state and uncommon in southern Florida.

The registry also says that the church is one of two structures in the state and the only one in Tampa Bay to use chert as “structural material.”

But there is a downtown Tampa house made of similar-looking stone.

A 1923 Tampa city directory lists Kennedy as living there at that time. The house at 712 S Edison Ave. is three blocks from Bayshore Boulevard and 4 miles from Ballast Point. The Tampa Bay Times could not reach the current homeowner to ask about the rocks.

Thousands of stones taken from the Hillsborough River cover the exterior of the century old St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church pictured  in Tampa.
Thousands of stones taken from the Hillsborough River cover the exterior of the century old St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church pictured in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Tampa Tribune articles from the 1920s provide directions to another Kennedy residence, one that seems likely to be his country place. In the 1920s, Kennedy hosted annual picnics for the founding families of the area. The Tampa Tribune reported that they were held on the Hillsborough River at his home east of the Temple Terrace subdivision and near 56th Street.

If that is from where the stones came, the Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell said, they were likely natural to the river.

“I just don’t think there would be any ballast that far up the river, certainly not enough to build a house and a church,” he said. “It is unlikely that ballast stones would be anywhere other than near, or just south of, Ballast Point.”

When the church was erected, the stones were laid into the exterior of cement mortar walls that were 16 inches thick, according to the Tampa Tribune. The architecture was compared to that of St. Martin’s Church in Canterbury, which “has been around for 1,500 years and the House of Prayer may well serve as a place of worship for a longer period than that,” the Tampa Tribune wrote.

Apathy almost doomed the House of Prayer, which was founded in 1907.

By the 1990s, membership dwindled.

So, in 1997, they merged with the St. James Episcopal Church, which was founded in 1891. Together, they became the St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church.

Today, Henley said, they have around 150 parishioners, each of whom is proud to attend weekly service in one of Tampa’s “most uniquely built churches.”

As for definitively learning the source of the rocks, Henley said, they have considered asking a geologist to study the church, but enjoy the mystery.

“The story and the truth were lost in the smoke of time,” he said. “That’s the fun of it.”