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New sanctuary fills void on Tierra Verde

And Tierra Verde residents fill their only church building, which shares parking and the look of Mercantile Bank.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


TIERRA VERDE -- They're practically a matched set, the two blue-gray buildings with white trim, sharing the same island property.

But a closer look reveals a discreet cross atop one and sail-shaped stained glass windows with colorful panes that mimic gentle waves.

This is the $1.5-million Island Chapel, Tierra Verde's only church, that is being dedicated today. It has been eight years since the nondenominational church was founded. Until a few weeks ago, the congregation, drawing mostly from residents of Tierra Verde, Isla del Sol and Bayway Isles, worshiped at the Tierra Verde Yacht and Tennis Resort.

On a recent Sunday, the second-floor sanctuary overflowed, attendance far exceeding the 70 official members of church. Rows of chairs had to be set up in the halls outside the 156-seat room to accommodate close to 175 worshipers.

"If the crowds continue coming at such a rate, then we'll have a second service," said the Rev. Mike Wetzel, the church's founding pastor.

"Normally, you have less people coming than you have members," he said. "This entire thing has very simply been God working."

Gordon Campbell, chairman of the board of Mercantile Bank, and his wife, Pat, have been attending Island Chapel for about four years.

"It just is amazing. When we started attending, if there were 35 people there, it was a big crowd," Campbell said.

The new building, which includes the sanctuary, a fellowship hall and nursery, will be an asset to the church, he added.

"I think that a lot of people have been going to other churches in St. Petersburg. . . . People wanted the comfort of a sanctuary," Campbell said.

Besides, he added, "This island has gotten bigger. It has over 3,000 people. They are ready for a church. It's all come together at the right time."

It all started with a call from a Tierra Verde couple to the Florida Baptist Convention.

Under the sponsorship of North East Park Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, the congregation of 12 got its start in July 1992. The new church was able to establish its financial independence in record time.

"Generally, it is three to four years, and we did it in a year and a half," said Wetzel, the founding pastor.

Besides its location in an affluent island community, the church has been able to capitalize on being the only place of worship on Tierra Verde.

"The biggest thing that really worked for us is we do an Easter sunrise service every year on Fort De Soto beach," Wetzel said. He added that the church publicizes the service throughout its ZIP code.

Island Chapel's interdenominational status also has been an advantage.

"I'm a Southern Baptist, and that is actually what we are, but we are the only church on the island and we strive to be nondenominational. . . . We don't want to turn people off by being a particular group," said Wetzel, who felt God's call to preach at age 13 and has a doctorate of ministry from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

"God cares more about our obedience to him than our affiliation. We teach what God's word says," the minister added.

Initially, said Campbell, he and his wife attended Island Chapel merely out of convenience. They had moved to Tierra Verde from Tampa, where they were members of Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

Then, Campbell said: "We discovered that people were coming from all denominations and that it was pretty much a nondenominational church and that appealed to us. It's a very, very strong, biblically oriented church. It really doesn't matter what denomination it is, if the preacher preaches from the Bible."

Bearing little resemblance to a traditional church, Island Chapel has carpet the color of sea foam, doors the color of sand, and purple and green chairs.

A couple of Sundays ago, cheerful greetings filled the 7,600-square-foot building as the congregation gathered to worship. Fans whirred overhead in the simple sanctuary. There was no cross adorning the room and a screen hung from the stage to display the words of traditional hymns as well as contemporary choruses.

The new church's design was no coincidence. The congregation wanted to combine traditional touches such as stained glass with newer elements that create openness and light, Wetzel said.

Island Chapel sits behind Tierra Verde's Mercantile Bank, with which it shares parking.

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