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Christ the King Catholic Church expands its presence on Dale Mabry

After a $5 million renovation, Bishop Gregory Parkes will bless Tampa's newly enlarged and updated church

TAMPA – As workers laid pavers in a dirt-filled construction site and worked around rows of new pews protected with plastic sheets, the Rev. Len Plazewski seemed unperturbed that his bishop was days away from a scheduled Mass to bless the newly renovated Christ the King Catholic Church.

Plazewski compared the intense activity to Santa's workshop two days before Christmas. In fact, the church, which is completing a $5 million makeover, was supposed to be ready in time for Christmas, but unforeseen construction hitches caused a delay.

Still, by the time Bishop Gregory Parkes, head of Tampa Bay's almost half-million Catholics, arrives to bless the larger, updated church and grounds Sunday, almost everything will be ready. New statues of saints crafted in Italy will be in their shrines, colorful mosaics will be unveiled, the tabernacle properly positioned behind the altar and the tile floors swept.

While there will be finishing touches to add, a special use permit will allow the 10:45 a.m. ceremony to go on.

Construction to enlarge and refurbish the South Tampa church began the day after Easter last year. Christ the King, founded in 1941, has more than 3,500 families, some whose history with the church encompasses generations.

Dr. Hector Vila, an anesthesiologist and a member of a well-known Tampa family, had his first communion at Christ the King in 1964. It's also where grandson Ben received the same sacrament two years ago. Vila said he was struck to realize that photographs had captured them both, hands reverently clasped.

"You can tell it's the same church," he said. "It really brought home to me how important that church is to me, not only in my life, but the life of my children and grandchildren. That's when we became moved to take care of the church, the way I take care of my house."

Vila and his wife, Claire, have three children and seven grandchildren. He said his family also wanted to honor his wife's mother, who was named after St. Joan of Arc. They gave money for the new St. Joan of Arc statute, he said.

That is one of four new statues at the church. Others are St. John Paul II, St. Teresa of Kolkata and St. Ignatius Loyola.

But for those simply passing by the church at 821 S Dale Mabry Highway, it's the towering Christ the King statue that will likely draw attention. The marble statue is 10 feet tall, weighs 7,000 pounds and stands on a 6½-foot base. Plazewski said the statue was repositioned to give the church greater visibility from Dale Mabry.

As Plazewski walked through the narthex, or gathering area, of the church this week, he pointed out something that parishioners are excited about — new and plentiful restrooms. The confessionals are also larger and there's now a covered drive-through entrance to church.

Two new outdoor areas will be blessed by the bishop. The St. Michael Courtyard, which has a fire pit where the light for Easter Vigil Masses will be kindled, is designed as a gathering spot. The Gethsemane Garden, an area for prayer and reflection and featuring a 12-foot crucifix, is overlooked by a small, indoor meditation chapel.

Parishioner Shannon Koebbe is looking forward to seeing the completed project. Koebbe moved to Tampa four years ago from San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Chris, a neurosurgeon, who was an active duty lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force, and their three sons.

''The way I feel about Christ the King is not even dependent on what the space looks like. It truly is what it feels like," she said.

"I truly feel that the people and the feeling is what makes that parish. Hopefully, it will bring more people to experience it." Koebbe, who teaches one of the parish's religious education classes, added that she has been inspired by the new mosaics that "take your breath away and bring you to a whole different level."

One portrays St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, a Mexican martyr who was 14 when he was killed in 1928 for refusing to deny his Catholic faith. Another is of St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of the military. The piece illustrates the saint, who was a Roman soldier, using his sword to cut his cloak to give half to a nearly naked beggar. The beggar, he would learn in a dream, was Jesus. In the background are flags with the insignia of the branches of the United States Armed Forces.

Christ the King has had a long connection with the military, Plazewski said. Its first pastor, the Rev. John J. Mullins, served as an army chaplain during World War II. After the war, parishioners bought a surplus army barracks and moved it to Dale Mabry to serve as a church. It seated 250 people.

Many members of the military worship at Christ the King and "are an important part of our parish," Plazewski said.

Vila agrees. His late father, Hector, after whom he was named, and his father's six brothers all served in the United States Armed Forces. In 2005, the city of Tampa dedicated the Vila Brothers Park at 700 N Armenia Ave. in their honor.

The Archbishop for the Military Services, USA, the Rev. Timothy P. Broglio, will celebrate Sunday's Mass of Blessing with Parkes and local clergy.

Plazewski, who has been at Christ the King since 2010, said the parish is thriving. The expanded church will now seat 1,000 worshipers, increasing its capacity by almost 400. Before the expansion, overflow crowds participated in Mass by closed circuit TV in the chapel.

Christ the King has an abundance of children, with 550 students in its pre-K through eight grade school and another 500 participating in religious education classes.

With all of the amenities being added with the renovation, Plazewski said he's been asked whether there will be cry room.

"We have a ton of kids in our parish. They are at every Mass," Plazewski said. "The cry room will be the whole church."

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