CLEARWATER — Father James Paris has promised his elderly parishioners they won't have to have their funerals in a gymnasium.
Ever since a fire destroyed Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in 2015, services have been held in a gym, the "churchnasium," with churchgoers sitting on chairs and looking at the makeshift altar and iconography screen.
To make it feel more comfortable, Paris had the interior walls painted the same blue that was in the old church. In the dark, from a distance, he said, it almost looks like it did before the fire.
After years of fundraising and makeshift services, construction of the new church is expected to be complete in October, with the first Divine Liturgy set for Christmas — 50 years to the day the same service was first held at Holy Trinity.
"The big thing is we're all looking forward to being in a church again and worshipping and giving glory to God," said Paris, who has been with the church for seven years.
Being in the gym has had its benefits, he said. The larger space let the parish accommodate more people and grow since the fire.
The new church at 409 Old Coachman Road will have room for them all, along with extra features like a nursing room, bride room, a choir room and a larger altar that can fit more priests. Though the impulse could have been to quickly get the church back up, Paris said Holy Trinity wanted to be more thoughtful.
"We wanted to make sure whatever we did would fit into the next 50 years," he said.
Construction on the $7.2 million building began last fall, said George Mantzaris, the parish council president. He said parishioners who normally travel out of town for Christmas are staying around to see the first Divine Liturgy in the new building.
Today, the church is surrounded by fencing and debris, with construction lifts inside moving from wall to wall. The old altar, saved from the fire, is encased in a white cloth, waiting by the side, where it will be permanently set up next to the new altar. The back of the altar has been set up, and the dome of the building has been erected, topped by a 7-foot Byzantine cross.
"I was watching it go up and I actually started tearing up, because of all the effort that we put into this, since 2015," Mantzaris said. "It's amazing that we've gotten this far and we're going to actually complete this."
The new building will be much more Byzantine, Paris said, with arches and crosses and interior decor to match. He said the detail is impressive considering the project has been underway only 15 months.
"This is a very complicated Byzantine structure," Paris said. "It's not like we're building a Chase Bank or a Wendy's."
He said the whole church community feels invested in the new building. Nearly 380 individuals and families have donated toward reconstruction, Mantzaris said. And they will all get their names on a donor wall, no matter the size of their donation.
"The church is people, ultimately, and there's no limits to what we can accomplish together," Paris said.
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