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Expansion underway at Dade City's historic St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church

DADE CITY — The faithful at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church worked for a decade to raise more than $235,000 to expand their historic church. Only one problem.

"The disagreement was over removing the stained glass window behind the choir loft," explained Pastor Nathaniel Sims. The magnificent 12-by 12-feet leaded glass window needed to come down to create the entryway to the addition. But one congregant after another told Sims and the deacons how important the window was.

"So we agreed to preserve and relocate it," said Sims. The colorful panels are being fashioned into six new exterior windows, destined for the pastor's office and two classrooms.

Construction is under way on a major expansion to the church at 14518 Seventh St., with great attention toward preserving the 1920 sanctuary while also meeting modern needs. An old annex was demolished in November, and the slab was laid Thursday for the 1,200-square-foot addition that will feature two classrooms, two offices, two changing rooms, seven lavatories and an elevated baptistry platform.

The pulpit will be widened to 27 feet and projected another 3 feet — allowing freer movement of their raise-the-roof pianist Willie Thomas and three choirs of men, women and children. The interior of the sanctuary will retain its traditional design with a functioning bell tower, 20-foot ceilings, elegant archways, carved wooden pews and warm red carpeting.

"Our mission is to win souls," Sims said. "With up to date facilities we hope to attract more of our community's youth to new beginnings classes."

The grandiose plans began humbly enough.

"It started when the women were complaining about (needing) a separate rest room," said Robert Judson, president emeritus of Pasco-Hernando Community College and longtime deacon at the church. "This caused several iterations of what we might do to create the needed space."

In no time, the wish list grew. And the congregation, some 200 strong, started raising the money to make it happen.

"We've conducted fundraising fellowship dinners and weekly collections," said Judson, who was tapped to chair the building fund. "There were also some private donors. Once there's a will, there's a way."

Sims and Judson worked with Randy Watson Designs to create the plans for the 60- by 34-foot addition. The design calls for white lace stucco walls that will complement the original antique red brick exterior.

Frank Bessenger, chairman of the Dade City Historic Preservation Advisory Board, said he appreciated that every effort was made to maintain the building's historic appearance and value.

"The presentation by Dr. Judson and Reverend Sims to our board was admirable," Bessenger said.

"We were exceedingly impressed by the steps they've taken to restore and maintain the integrity of the church."

The construction is being done by all local tradesmen — plumbers, electricians, masons, carpenters, and laborers — supervised by Dade City general contractor Dennis Emmanuel of Allround Builders, Inc.

"This was the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes," said church First Lady Ardell Sims, quoting Psalms 118:23.

And this time, it only took a decade.

It took 24 years for the pioneering black congregation to raise enough money to build the brick sanctuary, which was dedicated on Jan. 1, 1920. The words of the church's first pastor, the Rev. C.J. Smith, are inscribed on the cornerstone:

"We have come this far by faith."

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The addition to St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church is 1,200 square feet. The original version of this article gave an incorrect figure.