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Community mourns and celebrates the Welch sisters

ST. PETERSBURG

At the foot of the altar three white caskets faced the crowd.

It was a solemn reminder of why nearly 1,500 people were at First Baptist Church Saturday afternoon: to celebrate and to mourn.

They were there to remember the lives of La'Mour, India and Tehira Welch, three St. Petersburg sisters who died tragically in a car accident last week on their way home from a religious convention.

And remember they did.

Mourners swayed and clapped their hands to sounds of the choir.

As the music swept through the crowd, family members paused at each casket to share a moment with each woman. They placed flowers on top of each one — white for La'Mour, orange for Tehira and yellow for India.

The ceremony gave the community at large a chance to remember how much the three women had touched them.

Sabila Beganovic met fellow student Tehira, 18, when they were still in elementary school.

The two girls were like "twins," inhabitants of a "little world where no one else could join," she said in a tribute.

She will always remember "Tai's" smile, the way she made her feel.

"I will forever miss her," Beganovic said. "And I know some day in the future I am going to see her again."

To India's friends, her legacy will forever be entwined with St. Petersburg's.

Her goal was to "put this city on the map," said her friend Nicole Phillips.

But like most 24-year-olds, India also wanted to have fun. And sometimes, Phillips said, that meant taking a few too many pictures.

Why did she do it?

Phillips remembers India saying: "These moments are so special to me. I don't know why but I have to capture videos or pictures so I can go back and remember how important that moment was."

La'Mour's first cousin, Nhakia Bryant, held back tears as she described the 29-year-old mother of three, who was like a sister to her.

When they both needed a good conversation, they would cook bacon together. And, eat it, of course.

"I want you all to remember La'Mour as she was," Bryant said. "My cousin was loving, caring, kind. And just remember her as that."

The crowd broke into applause.

But when James Anthony Corbett, La'Mour's brother and India and Tehira's half-brother, took the stage, it was clear just how much the sisters had left behind.

He addressed his speech to his family, still reeling from their loss.

"The first message is for my dad and to let him know that his girls are all right. And to let him know that they're better right now than they ever would be on Earth," Corbett said, choking back tears.

In the week since the sisters' passing, the community has come out in droves to support their family.

So when deciding where to hold Saturday's service, the family had to take the church's size into account. Although the women's father, Ricardo Welch, is the pastor of Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ, the family knew the church was too small to hold all those who wanted to attend.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, the women's cousin, said they originally chose the slightly larger Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

But after Wednesday night's choir rehearsal nearly filled Prayer Tower, it was clear they needed a bigger space.

"It shows you how many lives they touched," Welch said.

Saturday's crowd also illustrated how important the three sisters were to the city and their religion — Mayor Rick Kriseman, council Chairman Charlie Gerdes and council member Wengay Newton were in attendance, as were bishops from the Church of God in Christ.

As the speeches wound down, the crowd grew silent and ushers passed around tissues. Tears streamed down faces as mumbled wails broke through the church. It was a time to grieve but it was also a time to love. To cherish the women's memories. And, most importantly, to sing.

Soloist Derrick Isham was greeted with a somber response when he began his song. But one by one, members of the audience stood up, waving their hands, saying "yes, Lord."

They clapped and danced wherever there was room. In church aisles, in the balcony, on the stage — their music and movements filled the entire space.

Contact Elizabeth Djinis at (727)-893-8913 or edjinis@tampabay.com. Follow @djinisinabottle.

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