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A longevity that's fueled by love

A picturesque Presbyterian church in Tarpon Springs is turning 120. Enduring warmth is one reason, members say.

By EILEEN SCHULTE
Published October 26, 2006


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[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
Lois Neef of Tarpon Springs tutors Sevasti Koulianos, 6, using a phonics workbook Wednesday at the Church on the Bayou in Tarpon Springs. "I've seen improvement in the last two weeks," says Neef about Sevasti.

TARPON SPRINGS - Tarpon Springs is the oldest city in Pinellas County, but on Friday a church that is a year older than the city itself will celebrate a milestone anniversary.

The Church on the Bayou Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Whitcomb Boulevard, known throughout the area for the immense white cross painted on its roof, is turning 120 years old, a milestone that few congregations in Pinellas County can match.

"One of the reasons it's going strong is there's a lot of love in this church," said Jean Englund, a member since 1963. "It's a warm church. Everybody makes an effort to be friendly."

Members are so gracious that each new person who attends a service gets a loaf of homemade bread as a token of goodwill.

The anniversary program, called "So Great a Cloud of Witnesses," starts at 6 p.m. Friday with a dinner and historical presentations by church members Don Finley, Dorothy Clay and Jack Westlake.

The congregation of the church, established in 1886 as First United Presbyterian Church, met in a country store before the first small chapel was built on the southwest corner of Tarpon Avenue and S Grosse Avenue for $300. The Rev. S.T. Wilson was the pastor.

Throughout the years, the church had its ups and downs, with attendance rising as the town's population grew and falling during hard times.

In 1897, a larger church was built at S Pinellas Avenue and Court Street.

Under the guidance of the Rev. W.G. Rees, the congregation moved again in the mid 1920s to a new sanctuary built for $25,000 at Grand Boulevard and Cypress Street. It thrived until the Depression hit and donations dropped to almost nothing.

In 1959, the congregation purchased 5 acres of picturesque waterfront land on Whitcomb Bayou for $1,500 in cash and $2,880 in pledges.

A sanctuary was built on the site in 1966 for $133,286.

A fellowship hall was constructed 30 years later.

Now the church has 140 members, most of whom are seniors active in community service.

"We're a mission church," Englund said.

The congregation sponsors a free afterschool tutoring program for children with learning disabilities, helps to support the Shepherd Center Soup Kitchen and participates in Habitat for Humanity. It provided relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"Our members are so engaged," said the Rev. Carl vom Eigen, who became the pastor six years ago.

"It's part of the Presbyterian heritage."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

[Last modified October 26, 2006, 07:07:47]


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