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Anonymous donor firms up downtown church's future

Repairs to the Unitarian Universalists' building led them to dig into the endowment. Over five years, $250,000 is pledged.

Published May 11, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - An anonymous donation that eventually could reach $250,000 has given significant impetus to a Mirror Lake congregation that once considered leaving the city's downtown.

Two years years ago, members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg were forced to dig into an endowment fund to repair their 1920s Spanish revival sanctuary and social hall. Then in February came news of a mysterious benefactor who would help significantly to improve the church's financial situation.

The anonymous donor promised a gift of $75,000 for the 2005 fiscal year, if the congregation would match the amount. Donations poured in, reaching a total of more than $86,000.

On Sunday the congregation, which has a little more than 100 members, celebrated. The Rev. Beth Graham, an associate vice president of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Massachusetts who knows the identify of the congregation's gift giver, attended the special service.

"The church is overjoyed," said the Rev. Susanne Nazian, one of two part-time consulting ministers at the Mirror Lake church.

She said the money will be used to hire a permanent, full-time minister and a new director of religious education.

"It's absolutely amazing to me that someone would have that amount of faith in us," said Barbara Rowell, chairwoman of the trustees responsible for church endowment.

"There's been some issues over the years as to whether we should stay downtown. My feeling about this whole thing is that the person who gave us the money has faith that we can make it downtown and we can continue to expand our message."

The gift is expected to amount to $250,000 over the next five years, she said.

In a news release, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations said the anonymous donor was inspired when a close friend suggested at Christmastime that "one might enjoy spending some money while one was still in a position to enjoy the results."

According to the release, "One delightful consequence of the donor's decision to remain anonymous is that the church members have been treating one another with increased gratitude and respect, knowing that any one of them could be the benefactor."

The St. Petersburg congregation was founded in 1914. It is a member of the Unitarian Universalist movement, which is a merger of Universalists, who date to 1793, and Unitarians, who were organized in 1825.

The free-thinking tradition, which ascribes to no creed and accepts all faiths and beliefs, including paganism, claims adherents such as Presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams and William Howard Taft. Before settling into the Spanish revival church they built in 1929, the church members had met in homes and rented space for their services.

In the past couple of years, the building at 719 Arlington Ave. N has been tented for termites and repainted. A new roof has been installed, windows have been repaired and historic dyed concrete floors restored. Sunday school rooms, built later, have been refurbished. A new parking lot also has been landscaped and outfitted with concrete berms.

The financial gift is another step toward revival for the historic church.

In 2001,the congregation's financial situation seemed dire. Staff salaries were cut and the Rev. Dee Graham, who headed the congregation at the time, left. A few months later, the church brought in a consultant and hired two part-time consulting ministers, Nazian and the Rev. Alexander Craig. With the church on firmer footing, the two ministers are leaving. Their last day is May 31.

"Each one was quarter-time. They brought a new life and enthusiasm to our congregation," said Rowell, the endowment committee chair.

A full-time interim minister will be hired for a year. The church hopes to get its permanent minister in August 2006.

"We're very gratified to leave the church in such a wonderful position," said Nazian, the co-minister. "I think they can be a real voice for free and liberal religion in downtown St. Petersburg."

[Last modified May 11, 2005, 00:46:18]

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