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Members rejoice in rebuilt, expanded church

In 1999, fire - set by an arsonist who has never been caught - roared through the Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 27, 2002


After more than three years of fundraisers and prayers, the Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church reopened buildings destroyed by an arsonist.

About 600 members joined hands around the church on Sunday to officially bless the new-and-improved facility.

"We had dogs. We had children. We had young people. We had old people," said organizer Barbara Ryals. "It was something that really pulled the whole congregation together."

To mark the occasion, they sang, prayed and cheered "hallelujah." Members eagerly gave tours.

The event marked the culmination of efforts to rebuild and expand the church at 3501 San Jose St. in Palma Ceia.

Fire ripped through the structure in March 1999, causing extensive damage to the offices, but sparing the sanctuary. Investigators ruled the fire an arson and offered a $7,500 reward for information leading to an arrest.

More than three years later, the crime remains unsolved. Authorities suspect a pyromaniac not connected to the church set the blaze.

Today, church leaders consider the fire a mixed blessing. It prompted members to make the worship center bigger and better than ever.

"We think that God has made lemonade out of lemons," said John DeBevoise, minister of the 2,200-member church.

The project cost $7-million, all of which came from the congregation. The 35,000-square-foot addition doubled the size of education areas and created more meeting rooms for Alcoholics Anonymous and other community groups.

Next summer, the church plans to upgrade the sanctuary with new carpeting, a sound system and fire sprinklers.

DeBevoise hopes the improvements help the 75-year-old church reach out to more people. The congregation has grown significantly in the past several years and needed additional space to serve its members.

Sunday's celebration brought closure to many who felt violated by the tragic, senseless crime. They rejoiced in their triumph and pledged to move forward.

"This church had been through so much over the past few years," Ryals said. "We all needed to come together at one time and one place and really thank God."

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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