Lutz's oldest church to give its roots room
By BILL COATS
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000
LUTZ -- When Rick Cabot moved into the parsonage of First United Methodist Church of Lutz two years ago, a well-wisher gave him a young laurel oak. But Cabot couldn't decide where to plant it.
So the tree has stayed in its pot, confined and spindly.
"It's grown a little bit, and it's lost a little bit," Cabot said. "But it's limited in how much it can grow."
Now, in a historic decision for Lutz, Cabot's church has concluded that it's in much the same plight as its pastor's oak: The Methodists are too cramped in downtown Lutz to fulfill their biblical mandate to reach out to the unchurched.
So First United Methodist, Lutz's oldest church, is planning to move a mile west. It will leave its 31/2-acre site at the cradle of Lutz and build a new campus on a 191/2-acre citrus grove at Lutz-Lake Fern Road and Merry Lane.
Church leaders don't know what they will do with their current buildings. Regardless, Lutz's quiet old downtown will lose its longest-standing institution at a time when civic leaders are promoting projects such as the rebuilt train depot to reactivate the area.
"We'll certainly miss them," said Ron Stoy, who led the depot drive and organized a concert series there. "They've been good supportive citizens of the downtown community."
But Stoy predicted that another growing church would move in, creating new interest in the area.
"It's new exposure, a shuffling of the deck, you might say," he said.
Cabot, 48, said he was concerned how the church's pioneer members might feel about the move, but found them to be some of the most supportive.
"Time marches on," said Betty Suydam, 73. "I would love to just continue going right on over there until I head for the cemetery, but that's not practical. We've got to build a new church for all the young people."
But historian Elizabeth MacManus, whose father was one of Lutz's first settlers, considers the church's site historic.
"It'd be just like moving out of your house you've lived in for so long," she said.
Mrs. MacManus said she didn't speak up as her church made its plans. "I don't want to be negative," she said.
According to books she has published, the church was organized as the United Brethren Church in 1912. That was three years after Lutz Junction, a railroad connection, was built, and a year after settlers began buying land from developers of a new town planned next to the railroad depot.
It was Lutz's only church for a quarter-century, until First Baptist Church was organized in 1939.
By 1948, United Brethren had built its third sanctuary, which still is in use today. Ruins of a previous one are buried under the church lawn.
Next door is Lutz's oldest surviving building, an apartment house built in 1911 as a hotel for newly arriving settlers.
The United Brethren Church became the Lutz Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1946, and First United Methodist Church of Lutz in 1968.
Betty Roberts, who joined the church in 1956, recalls little controversy three years ago when the Methodists considered buying the new property. Sunday worship already had been split into two services. Members considered a new church inevitable, she said.
"Everybody was happy that we were buying land," she said.
Since Cabot arrived in June 1998, active membership has grown to 600 from 400. Youth programs abound and charitable work has expanded. A third service has been added Sunday morning.
"Their focus is not on "me having fun' anymore," said Mrs. Roberts. "It's on service to others."
"We want to reach out beyond the walls of the church," said Cabot. "But we have people come here and not find a comfortable parking place. We'll have a family of four come to the 9:30 or 11 o'clock service and not be able to sit together."
Last month, the church elected a building committee to plan what will be built and how it will be financed. The church expects to first build a multipurpose facility that could alternate as a fellowship hall and a sanctuary, with folding chairs. It would include classrooms.
In later phases, it hopes to add a conventional sanctuary and recreation facilities.
"It may take us 20 years to implement all the concepts that are on there," said Cabot.
Nearly all the plans, including a site layout, are subject to change by the building committee.
This carries personal implications for Cabot's family. The site includes a 30-year-old house on Lake Norbert that became the church parsonage.
The conceptual plan preserves the house, between basketball and volleyball courts. But it notes: "Possible other future use."
That's why Cabot can't figure out where to plant his laurel oak.
- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 email@example.com.
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