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'Church on wheels' will settle in

After years without a permanent home, the fast-growing St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church is preparing to move into its own building.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2000


CROSS CREEK -- After waiting four years, hundreds of Catholic parishioners are about to have a spiritual home.

A building for St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church -- New Tampa's fifth free-standing church and one of its largest congregations -- is nearly complete, just in time for the holidays. Church officials plan to be in the 30,000-square-foot, 850-seat Family Life Center at 9724 Cross Creek Blvd., by Christmas.

"I suppose in many ways . . . it's like giving a birth to a child and having the opportunity to see it grow," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Austin Mullen. "I've been watching it go up and it's just a marvel to see the vision take on a reality."

Since the church celebrated its first Mass on Aug. 31, 1996 at the Tampa Bay Presbyterian Church, it has borrowed the facilities of others. Its Mass schedule, classes and activities have been split between temporary offices in a nearby trailer, Tampa Bay Presbyterian and Wharton High School. Easter services have been held in outdoor tents.

"It's an exhilarating feeling to get to this point," said Nancy Larson, co-chairwoman of the church's Dec. 23 dedication service. "We've been like orphans, literally."

The church-on-the-move is not only about to take permanent root; it also plans to grow.

The $4.6-million center, designed in contemporary style by Alberto Portela, is the first phase of the church's building plans. Later, the church hopes to build a 40,000-square-foot church, chapel and school on the Cross Creek site.

Seeds for a New Tampa church were planted about seven years ago, when the diocese of St. Petersburg bought 27 acres of undeveloped land on Cross Creek. Organized to serve fast-growing New Tampa, St. Mark today is one the area's largest congregations, with 1,300 families representing about 3,500 people.

"We've been a church on wheels for four years," Mullen said.

Parish administrator Terry Darken said the church is eager to begin building the chapel, where daily Mass can be recited. But it must first raise $2.55-million, half the $5.1-million cost of the center and chapel.

The Diocese, which requires 50 percent of the costs to be raised first, will issue a mortgage for the rest. So far parishioners have contributed about $1.9-million.

"I just want to thank the parishioners who believed in what we were about, saw a need and gave support," Mullen said. "It is a costly project. We wouldn't be able to do it without the parishioners."

The first shovel of dirt was turned in March. And progress on the building has been noticeable with each passing month.

Workers now are doing final touches, such as carpeting and tile work.

Earlier this week, Darken led a visitor through the center. She walked from the outdoor grass and concrete piazza, past the blue curved walls at the entrance representing the hands of God. She noted that someday, the piazza will have a fountain and the wall will have tiles depicting God, Jesus and the four gospel writers.

Inside, she strolled through the Family Life Center's worship area, marked by a baptismal font at the entrance and a stately lighted glass block cross at the opposite end, surrounded by a wall of blue.

Darken looked around the offices and education rooms on either side of the worship area and talked about the wonderment of the church having its own space.

"All of these things are so wonderful to the people who have waited so long for this," she said.

St. Mark is the newest addition to New Tampa's spiritual community.

Other free-standing churches in New Tampa include Grace Episcopal, Tampa Bay Presbyterian, St. James United Methodist and Family of Christ Lutheran. Various other churches and synagogues meet in schools, strip malls and community centers as they recruit members and raise building funds.

St. Mark the Evangelist's dedication ceremony of the new Family Life Center will be celebrated with a 5 p.m. Mass Dec. 23. Bishop Robert Lynch will hand over a symbolic key to the building to Mullen and then lead congregants from an outdoor tent through the entrance of the center.

He and Mullen will bless the center, its altar and liturgical items.

"Then he will say, "Now the light of Christ is in this church,"' Larson said. "Then all of a sudden, the lights will come on. I can't wait."

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