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The old is toppled to make way for the new

By TIM GRANT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


CARROLLWOOD -- While they recalled fond memories of weddings and baptismal services at Lake Magdelene United Methodist Church, several members watched with mixed emotions Wednesday as the historic sanctuary was reduced to rubble.

For 40 years, the building served three generations of churchgoers in northwest Hillsborough County and was a familiar landmark at 2909 W Fletcher Ave. Gasps and groans swept through the anxious crowd as heavy eqipment knocked the church steeple off of its proud perch.

The demolition moved slower than usual because the wreckers were trying to save the iron cross in order to give it back to the son of the man who built it.

"Certainly there's a sadness in watching this building come down," said church minister Bruce Toms. "But this building is not the church. The people are the church."

Despite the long faces, it was a happy occasion. With the old church demolished, the members will build a new one twice as large in order to keep pace with its growing congregation.

With 2,200 members, the old 350-seat building was bursting at the seams. In recent years, Sunday morning worship was divided into three separate services to help ease the crowding.

The new, $4.5-million sanctuary will seat 600 people when it opens, but can easily expand to accommodate 1,300 worshipers.

Within two weeks, the bricks, boards and mortar will be cleared away and construction will begin. The work should be done in time for Easter Sunday service next year. Meanwhile, church services will be held in a 500-seat building the members use for social activities.

"This is a great opportunity for the future of the church. It's a new beginning," said 70-year-old Jim Yost, one of the longest serving members. Yost said his son and daughter were married in the building and his grandchildren were baptized there.

Although the building had stood there since 1960, the congregation is more than 100 years old.

Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church was started by the Rev. Isaac Ward Bearss, for whom Bearss Avenue was named. According to the church history, Bearss moved to Tampa in the 1890s from Missouri with about 11 men and women to establish the state's first United Brethren Church.

The first sanctuary was a small wooden structure built in 1898 near Gunn Highway. When the Fletcher Avenue property was donated by the Stall family, for whom Stall Road was named, the wooden church was rolled to the site on logs pulled by a team of mules. It was replaced by a two-story brick sanctuary in 1924 and then the most recent building in 1960.

"We're building our fourth sanctuary on this property to accommodate growth in this area," Toms said.

Lake Magdalene United Methodist is a familiar meeting place for many north Hillsborough residents. Even people who aren't members have benefited from its wide range of community ministries.

Several groups use the church facilities to hold their meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Boys/Girls Scouts, cancer awareness groups, international adoption groups and Bible fellowships.

Shirley Erwin has worked as an office administrator at the church for nine years. Watching the demolition, she thought of her daughter Elizabeth Erwin being confirmed in the building and accepting Christ as her savior at the altar.

"I really feel that this church gave her the grounding she needed," Erwin said.

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