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Sinkholes close historic UU church in Tarpon Springs

Early 20th century artist George Inness Jr. was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, and his paintings can be found on walls in the sanctuary. This one, The Lord is in His Holy Temple, was painted in 1926 and was his last.
Early 20th century artist George Inness Jr. was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, and his paintings can be found on walls in the sanctuary. This one, The Lord is in His Holy Temple, was painted in 1926 and was his last.
Published Dec. 27, 2013

TARPON SPRINGS — The Rev. Don Rollins arrived in Florida several months ago from Eugene, Ore., to take over as minister for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs.

Oregon isn't sinkhole country, so when engineers detected two sinkholes on the church's property — one near the parsonage, the other bordering the sanctuary — his response was bemused.

"This is all new, man," he said Thursday.

Since the sinkholes were discovered — they're not visible to the naked eye — the church's 80 or so members have gathered at a nearby Elks Lodge for services and activities.

More than a century old, the historic church at 230 Grand Blvd. is known for its art collection. A famous early 20th century artist named George Inness Jr. was a member, and his paintings adorn the sanctuary. They're undamaged, but until the engineers sign off and allow people back inside the church, the valuable paintings are off-limits.

The ordeal has brought the congregation closer, said Ann Rainey, president of the church's Board of Trustees.

Even little things have helped cheer members during the holiday season, like treating the elk head on the wall of the lodge as a sort of mascot.

"He's our buddy," said Rainey.

When times get tough, good churches strengthen their bonds.

"This is our spiritual home," she said. "You feel like your family has this problem and everyone is pulling together."

The sinkholes were discovered during a remodeling of the church. The floors in part of the church had sloped, but no one thought anything serious lurked beneath, Rainey said.

The proposed remodeling of the floors suddenly got a lot more complicated after a foundation check revealed the problem.

"Live and learn. Be careful what you ask for," Rainey said.

The total damage is still being calculated, but it might be as much as $1 million, Rollins said.

Insurance is expected to cover the losses, but when things will return to normal isn't clear.

"It's all up in the air," Rollins said.

Researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.