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    A faithful following

    Neither side speaks of regrets in this first Sunday service after Kevin Donlon leaves St. Mary's to start a new church.

    By SHARON TUBBS and GRAHAM BRINK
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 29, 2002


    TAMPA -- More than 300 worshipers sat on folding chairs, singing and praying above the din of a floor fan Sunday inside the Tampa Garden Center.

    The makeshift setting did nothing to deter the enthusiasm during the first service for the Church of the Resurrection, a congregation of former St. Mary's Episcopal Church members upset over the suspension of that church's former rector, the Rev. Kevin Donlon.

    "This is the most exhilarating worship experience we've had in 12 weeks," said Buzz Bruno. "Fantastic!"

    Not far away, about 200 people gathered at a service at St. Mary's to begin picking up the pieces of their fractured church.

    Donlon was suspended Feb. 6 by Bishop John B. Lipscomb after eight St. Mary's members filed a 26-page complaint. The complaint has never been made public, but Donlon and his supporters said it accused him of having an inappropriate supervisory relationship with a former staff member; of abusive conduct toward staff members; of having a conflict with the church-affiliated school's headmaster; and of having inappropriate interaction with members of the parish community.

    Donlon denied the charges, hired a lawyer and appealed the suspension. Supporters spoke out in protest. But a review committee for the Diocese of Southwest Florida refused to overturn the suspension.

    The charges were still under investigation by the church when Donlon renounced his affiliation with the Episcopal church last week and joined his supporters in establishing the Church of the Resurrection, a congregation within the Anglican Mission in America, a 2-year-old group of about 40 parishes in the United States.

    Anglican Mission Bishop Charles H. Murphy III flew in from Pawleys Island, S.C., to give a sermon Sunday.

    "I want you to understand that God has got us," Murphy told parishioners, encouraging them to cast aside doubt. "This trauma that we feel that we've just passed through is something that God is carrying us through. I want to argue that good things can come out of traumatic experiences."

    Donlon, 45, became St. Mary's rector in 1996. Under his watch, the congregation grew to 600 members and undertook a $10-million project, building a new church and a school in South Tampa. Both opened in January.

    He spoke briefly Sunday, referring to his suspension as "my time in exile."

    "God has moved mightily," he said of the day's service. "We hope that you come back next week, but if you don't come back next week, be somewhere rooted in the body of Christ."

    In a short meeting after the two-hour service, worshipers elected the new church's 12-member vestry board. Bowen Brown, elected a vestry board member, said he still has friends at St. Mary's.

    "I wish them well," Brown said. "I have no ill will toward them and I hope they have no ill will toward me. I just hope that they continue on in some fashion."

    "What happened in the past few months at St. Mary's was not right," said Paula Croom, a St. Mary's member for three years who decided to join the new congregation. "We were not in agreement with it."

    The church will hold services at the Tampa Woman's Club for the next few weeks while leaders discuss finding a permanent facility.

    At St. Mary's on Sunday, Lipscomb offered words of encouragement. He alluded to the conflict several times but did not call Donlon by name. The work of Christ is "forgiveness and faith," he said. "We should not let our hearts be troubled," he added later.

    Lipscomb introduced visiting priest W.D. McLean from Sarasota. In a short speech, McLean told the congregation church officials were bracing for a much smaller turnout. He said the larger gathering was a "good sign" and the church could "start over if we have to."

    Church leaders plan to choose an interim rector until a permanent replacement is found.

    The turmoil at St. Mary's apparently drew people who had not worshiped there in awhile.

    "Sometimes it takes a crisis to renew faith in whatever you believe in," said Dave Mooney, who attended with his grandmother for the first time in over a year.

    Billy Byrd returned to St. Mary's on Sunday for the first time in five years. Like many parishioners, he was reluctant to talk positively or negatively about Donlon. "I'm back now," Byrd said. "To stay."

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