TARPON SPRINGS — The Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs officially opened its doors to the public last week following a six-year restoration project that began as a sinkhole repair in 2013.
Officials for Tarpon’s oldest church, a sanctuary for people of all faiths at 230 Grand Blvd., said the work to repair three sinkholes discovered just before Thanksgiving quickly turned into a nightmare of epic proportions featuring everything from drainage issues to termite problems.
“One problem made us aware of the other,” the Rev. Bob Murphy, the church’s chaplain, said as guests filed into the renovated cathedral last month. “It really became quite a mess.”
The majestic building, tucked back on the corner of Grand Boulevard and Read Street, reopened to the congregation in May, revealing a gorgeously restored sanctuary featuring natural wood floors, large, arched windows and a rare collection of paintings by the great American landscape painter George Inness Jr.
“This building was built in 1908, and in 1918 a hurricane damaged it and knocked the windows out,” Murphy said. “Mr. Inness put up some of his paintings to cover the damage, and over the years, they added more to the collection to get it to where it is today, with 11 of his works.”
After receiving permission in 2015 from the city’s Heritage Preservation Board, the building committee reinstalled windows in the historic sanctuary that had been closed for more than 100 years.
The church’s president, Kathy Hopkins, who also served on the building committee, said, “Walking in, I immediately felt this peacefulness, with the beauty and the light. It was truly a spiritual feeling that this is a calm, safe place. It was very rewarding and very unexpected. It sent chills down my spine.”
Murphy acknowledged it would’ve been easy for the church to either fold up shop or relocate in the wake of the forced closure that saw the congregation bounce around from the Tarpon Springs Elks Lodge on Pinellas Avenue, to the city’s Community Center on South Walton Avenue during the restoration effort.
But he said their longstanding commitment to the community made them determined to see it through.
“Essentially this is a community church and we welcome people of all faiths — Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims — all faiths,” he said. “And what brings us together is a tradition of moral concern and working together for the good of the community. … One of the reasons there’s a lot of excitement tonight is because now we finally have a home again. Now we have a place to meet and to make the congregation feel welcome.”