After years, a new Catholic parish

The church looks ahead in fast-growing Pasco.

By SHERRI DAY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 11, 2007

TRINITY - The Rev. Dennis Hughes surveys a vast expanse of undeveloped land here and sees a church nestled picturesquely against towering cypress trees.

His is a big vision, covered for the moment in high grass and a nearly 25-foot mound of dirt. But upon this 61-acre plot, in one of the fastest growing communities in Pasco County, Hughes will erect a church - the first new parish for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg in more than a decade.

As the priest in charge of the new parish, with boundaries that are currently home to about 20,000 people, Hughes faces a daunting task. Right now, he has no office, no meeting space, no staff, no home and zero parishioners. What Hughes lacks in tangibles, he tries to make up for in fortitude.

"There is an excitement, and I guess there's just a lot of opportunities to try new things in a new parish," said Hughes, 58, who volunteered for the job once his assignment ended at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinellas Park.

Leaders of the nearly 400,000-member diocese pore over growth trends, population studies and maps to pinpoint parish sites and where the next expansion explosion will take place. They buy property years in advance based on those predictions. At present, the diocese owns 15 sites in the five-county diocese that could one day become parishes or other ministry locations, said Steve Zientek, the diocese's manager for real estate and planning.

The diocese bought the three parcels that make up the Trinity property in 1999 for about $1.3-million, according to Pasco County property appraiser's records. The land will one day hold a 1,200- to 1,500-seat church with room for a school and senior housing if the need arises.

Despite focusing on growth areas, the diocese starts its Trinity building project at a time when development across the region has slowed considerably. In boom times, developers in southern Pasco County submitted as many as 6,500 building permits a year, county leaders said. Now, 2,500 applications a year is the norm.

Still, local leaders are hopeful the area will continue to appeal to middle-class home buyers and young families seeking moderately priced homes.

"Most of the people there are accustomed to having the good quality of life issues and that also includes churches," said Ann Hildebrand, who represents Trinity and is chairman of the Pasco County Board of Commissioners. "Right now, things are pretty quiet, but it won't stay that way for long."

Hughes aims to take advantage of the calm as he gears up to launch the new parish. In the meantime, he hopes to hold the parish's first Mass in January - in a funeral home chapel - until the diocese erects a temporary structure on the church's permanent site.

Already, area Catholics are abuzz with talk about the new parish.

"That would be about 10 minutes from our house, so that would be good news," said Robert Goedert, 54, who has commuted 25 minutes with his family to church for more than two decades.

Mike and Mary Anne McCarthy met Hughes in Los Angeles at a Catholic marriage seminar. Recent retirees, the couple moved to Trinity from Texas in June and were thrilled to hear that a new parish would open minutes from their new home.

"We've been looking forward to there being a local church here in the area," said Mike McCarthy, 56. "And we're also excited about it being a new church because we can get in on the ground floor as opposed to trying to meld in with an existing church that's been there for years."

Starting anew

Since 1980, the Catholic diocese has started 17 new parishes. Most of the building boom took place in the mid 1980s in places ranging from Seffner in Hillsborough County to Spring Hill in Hernando. The goal, Zientek said, was to build up the diocese's inventory and position parishes in places that were primed for residential expansion.

Besides growth potential, diocesan officials consider whether existing parishes can sustain a new church nearby without siphoning away major donors and volunteers, Zientek said.

Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Land O'Lakes and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in New Port Richey border the new Trinity parish. Once the diocese solidifies the new church's boundaries, Trinity will likely attract parishioners from both congregations. Diocesan officials estimate that the Trinity parish already has some 1,500 to 2,000 potential Catholic families in its temporary boundaries. New building should push that number higher.

The Rev. Michael Lydon, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas, appreciates the challenges Hughes faces as he starts a new parish. Lydon started St. Justin Martyr Catholic Church in Largo in 1987.

"There's always the concern with our parish that it's going to be taking some parishioners away," Lydon said. "But I think that the ones he'll take from here to form his parish will already have formed a good foundation from our parish and will be of tremendous support to him."

At Our Lady of the Rosary, where more than 1,200 students attended catechism classes last year, church officials welcome the new parish. They recently built 12 new classrooms to handle the crush of students.

"It kind of relieves us of a few parishioners from that side of the boundary," said the Rev. Ronald B. Aubin, the church's pastor. "It might give us a little stability for a year."

Shoe leather, Scripture

Hughes has taken this journey before. In 1985, he was the founding pastor at St. Timothy Catholic Church in northwest Hillsborough County.

But this time is different. At St. Timothy's, about 500 parishioners had been meeting at a satellite church before Hughes arrived. In Trinity, the priest will start from scratch.

First on his agenda: finding a home that will double as a temporary parish office. He now lives with a family in Trinity.

But what should have been a relatively easy task already hit a snag when community officials in one Trinity neighborhood chafed at the idea of having a religious institution in the area. So, he's still looking.

In the coming months, Hughes also will hire office staff and work with an architect on the parish's site plan. In about 12 months, the diocese hopes to erect a steel building on the parish site to accommodate worship services, Hughes said.

For now he is calling the church Catholic Community in Trinity. Parishioners will eventually help choose a permanent name, although Bishop Robert N. Lynch has the final say.

There is, of course, the matter of parishioners. Hughes plans to spend Sundays volunteering at local parishes and talking up the Trinity church. He also plans to spearhead a direct-mail campaign and create promotional fliers for developers to stuff inside new-homeowner packets.

Then, when the weather cools, Hughes will take to Trinity's streets to meet potential parishioners. His message will be simple.

"From the day we start celebrating Mass in that area, even in a temporary location, that community, that church exists," Hughes said. "The church building can be something we dream about and look forward to and so on, but it's not the church. That church is the people."

Sherri Day can be reached at 813 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

2025 When the Trinity parish nears possible completion.

$1.3 million What the diocese paid in 1999 for the land.

$5 million-$8 million How much diocesan leaders say it typically takes to build a new church.

$25 million How much it may eventually cost to build the new parish.

1,200-1,500 How many seats the new church is set to have.

How Trinity got its name

Trinity was named by Dr. James P. Gills, a Tarpon Springs ophthalmologist and devout Christian. Gills has a knack for choosing symbolic names for his enterprises, including St. Luke's Cataract and Laser Institute in Tarpon Springs named after a biblical physician. He also formed Jireh Inc. in the early 1980s to coordinate land development. Jehovah Jireh means, "The Lord will provide."

Source: Times files.