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Easter, a time of new beginnings and renewal for Christians

Gary Howard, 47, who is from Manchester, England, poses for a portrait with a photo of his wife, Marie Scott-Howard, inside the chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Dunedin. Howard will enter the Catholic Church this Easter. His wife, Marie Scott-Howard, whom he met on the internet, died suddenly a little more than a year ago and he is keeping a promise to be baptized Catholic. GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times

Times Staff Writer

In a practice that dates back to early Christianity, hundreds of Tampa Bay Christians were to be baptized at Easter Vigil services Saturday night.

Gary Howard had been preparing for months, attending classes at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Dunedin, and as he tells it, fulfilling his own spiritual journey and a vow he'd made to his late wife.

"In becoming baptized, I am not only completing a promise I made to my wife, but I am also becoming the person I always should have been," said Howard, 47, who moved to the United States from Manchester, England, in 1998 to marry the woman he still describes as his soul mate.

Howard is among 350 "catechumens" across the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg — encompassing Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties — who took the required classes that would culminate in their Easter Vigil baptisms. At the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, Bishop Gregory Parkes was set to baptize six new Catholics.

In a tweet, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said more than 30,000 people — some to be baptized and others already-baptized Christians — were expected to be welcomed into the Catholic church nationwide during this year's Easter Vigil.

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At the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Peter in downtown St. Petersburg, Canon Katie Churchwell said there were to be three baptisms, two adults and one infant. She said the Easter Vigil, presided by Bishop Dabney Smith of the Diocese of Southwest Florida, also would include a combination of 20 confirmations, reaffirmations of confirmation vows and those being received into the Episcopal church.

Brooks and Izzy Franklin's daughters, Bella, 10, and Sophie, 5, attended weekly classes to prepare for their Easter Vigil baptism at St. Vincent's Episcopal Church. As the end of Lent neared, the Rev. Alex Andujar took Bella and her father through the St. Petersburg church to familiarize them with what to expect during the service.

Brooks Franklin, 37, a manager at Trader Joe's in Tampa, said the baptisms are important to his family.

"I've always attended church," he said. "My own personal relationship with God has always been important to me and the foundation for my life. Izzy, also."

He said they spent a year looking at different churches after moving from Brandon to St. Petersburg about two and a half years ago. They felt at home at St. Vincent's.

"In talking with Father Alex, he had mentioned that Easter is when they like to do baptisms," Franklin said. "When Father Alex mentioned that, we thought it would be a great opportunity."

Easter baptisms are based on tradition, Andujar said. "It was a time in the life of the early church when people were brought into the church. You could wait as much as three years before you were admitted into the church. They wanted to make sure that you were committed to the faith," he said.

"The real significance is that at the Easter Vigil, we are keeping watch, waiting for the resurrection. For me, it's my favorite service of the whole year. We start outside of the church and kindle a new fire. We start in the darkness and then we start a light. ... There are Christians all over the world sharing in this moment."

The Rev. Robert Schneider, pastor at St. Cecelia's Catholic Church in Clearwater, was planning for five adult baptisms at the 8 p.m. mass.

"We believe that when people are baptized with water, they are dying and rising with Christ," he said of the custom of administering the sacrament at Easter. "It has been done since ancient times, the beginning of the church."

Schneider said newly baptized Catholics receive three sacraments, baptism, confirmation and the Holy Eucharist at the Easter Vigil mass.

For Howard, it would be a bittersweet occasion. His late wife, Marie Scott-Howard, was 49 when she died suddenly less than a year ago. She collapsed while working out. Doctors said she died of a brain aneurism.

After her death, Howard, who works in admissions at St. Leo University, decided to resume the classes at Our Lady of Lourdes he had dropped in 2012. He contacted Michael Raposa, longtime director of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at Our Lady of Lourdes.

"I emailed him and told him that my wife had passed away and literally, within the next 10 minutes, he called me," Howard said.

Raposa, who is the CEO of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg, said the Dunedin church was welcoming 12 new Catholics this year. "We have brought in as many as 57 in one year," he said.

This time around, Howard attended all of the classes and began going to church on Sundays. But, he said, "I had a hard time making it through the masses without crying."

He and Marie were "the original internet love story," Howard said. "I placed some silly ad in the UK and she saw it from over here in Florida. So she responded. That was in 1998."

They married on March 15, 1999, at the Clearwater courthouse and had talked about having their marriage blessed in the Catholic Church.

"I'm going to be sad and happy both at the same time," he said a few days before his Easter baptism.

"Essentially, I'm completing a promise I made to Marie, but I'm connecting with God on a whole new level that I'd never done before. I believe that God comes first, and while bad things do happen to good people, we can still grow from loss."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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