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Downtown churches have seen better days

Dwindling membership has doomed several in St. Petersburg in what is a nationwide trend.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- As the imposing neoclassical revival sanctuary that once housed First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg awaits its fate, it stands testament to the demise of numerous old downtown churches across the nation.

Faced with dwindling congregations and inner-city deterioration, many closed their doors altogether or fled to greener pastures in suburbia.

In St. Petersburg, First Baptist Church, at 120 Fourth St. N, departed in 1990 for property it had purchased on Gandy Boulevard. Its empty church and education building were bought by St. Peter's, the Episcopal cathedral next door, with an eye toward improving and expanding its ministries. Today the education building is occupied, but the sanctuary is vacant and may be demolished to create much-needed parking for St. Peter's congregation.

Two years after First Baptist's congregation migrated north, Mirror Lake Christian Church shut its doors. In the years leading up to its closing, the sanctuary that had been built for 1,000 worshipers was drawing only about 40 to 45 people on Sundays, with a high of 65 during the winter tourist season. In 1999, Munro & Wilder, a consulting firm, purchased the 1926 Mediterranean revival structure at 737 Third Ave. N and renamed it the Mirror Lake Lyceum. The renovated church has taken on new life as a center for social events, business meetings and small concerts.

In 1994, First Congregational United Church of Christ, up the block from St. Peter's and the old Baptist Church, closed after Christmas Day services. The church, which had served the community for 106 years, sat empty on the corner of Fourth Street and Second Avenue N until its purchase last year by developer Grady Pridgen. He is leasing the church and turning its parish hall into a townhouse, offices and art studio.

More recently, First Church of Christ, Scientist, whose auditorium at 253 Fifth Ave. N could seat more than 1,000, also closed. By 1998, the congregation had decreased to about 50 people. That same year, members sold the church to an arts group, which renamed it the Palladium Theater.

That same arts group once considered purchasing the former First Baptist Church but decided against it, citing prohibitive renovation costs.

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