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CENTRAL FLORIDA: RIP: St. David's -- Lakeland (1953-2018)

CENTRAL FLORIDA: RIP: St. David's -- Lakeland (1953-2018)
The sun sets at St. David's; I remember the heyday

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
September 21, 2018

I read with great sorrow about the death of St. David's Episcopal Church in Lakeland, Florida. St. David's obituary first appeared in The Lakeland Ledger and was then reposted on VOL.

I cut my journalistic teeth at The Ledger. I was a stringer while in college. I got paid 10¢ an inch and $1 per picture. The Ledger was my first taste of what would become my lifelong career.

I have ties to St. David's and it is painful to see those ties severed and reduced to memories. As I get older, ties to the past -- my girlhood -- keep getting cut, many times through death. The death of parents, the death of friends, the death of a church.

When I was a child, my father owned a nursing home in the Northwoods of Wisconsin -- Mueller Nursing Home. In part, I grew up there.

Daddy had nursing home license #3 in the state of Wisconsin. But as state laws changed, Daddy attempted to accommodate all the new changes. He put in a ramp, he put in a two fire escapes, he put in a commercial kitchen, he put in a commercial laundry, he put in fire doors, he put in fire hoses, he put in a locked narcotics closet, he hired a registered nurse ... But when he was told the nursing home had to become a one-story brick building, he could not comply. The large building on the top of Swede Hill is a massive two-story wood 10-bedroom structure. Daddy was forced out of business.

Originally, the nursing home was my Uncle Rohland's "northern summer cottage." He and my Aunt Eleanor lived in Chicago. Somewhere along the line, before my time, it became a maternity home. Most of the kids my age in town were born at Grandma's maternity home. (I was born in Seattle). In 1951, when Grandma Kaye, Aunt Eleanor's sister, died it became the nursing home and Daddy took over.

So, in 1965, Daddy sold the nursing home, found placement for all of his 32 patients, held an auction, packed up what was left and we -- Daddy, Grandpa and I -- headed to Florida, pulling a small U-Haul behind us.

The only thing I now have left from growing up in Prentice is my Grandfather's sea chest. Twenty-five years after I had left Wisconsin, I returned as an editor in Chippewa County. I went back home and visited Uncle Twiggs who was still on the farm. He had a surprise for me.

He had gotten married and his wife one day dragged home this old gray sea chest she had found at a yard sale. It had not been repainted and Grandpa's name was still on it. Uncle Twiggs immediately recognized the name and put the sea chest in the barn, using it as tool chest, knowing that one day I would show up. Well, I showed up. Uncle Twiggs took me to see the sea chest and asked if I wanted it. I leapt at the chance and I still have it to this day.

The chest sits right next to my computer and it remains unpainted and Grandpa's name -- ARTHUR F. H. MUELLER -- is still embossed on it in large black two-inch letters. Every time I see it I am so grateful that Uncle Twiggs thought to keep it for me. It is the only item I still have from my early childhood in Wisconsin. It holds a treasure trove of childhood memories.

My father had secured employment as the new administrator of Bishopscourt, an Episcopal nursing home, in Lakeland, Florida. He was hired by Bishop Henry I. Louttit, Sr. (III South Florida).

It is through Bishopscourt I first connected with St. David's.

As an Episcopal nursing home, Bishopscourt had a chaplain -- the Rev. John D. Raciappa, of happy memory. He was also vicar of tiny St. Luke's Episcopal Church in nearby Mulberry, Florida.

One day Daddy introduced me to Fr. Raciappa when we both happened to be at Bishopscourt. I'd go to Bishopscourt after school and ride home with Daddy after work. That first encounter is burned in my memory.

Daddy: "Father, meet my daughter Mary Ann."

Fr. Raciappa: "I'll make an Episcopalian out of you." (I was Lutheran at the time.)

Daddy: "Mary Ann, meet Fr. Raciappa."

Mary Ann: "Sinner's chance in hell, priest."

I am surprised that Daddy didn't box my ears.

Although my father was not a believer, he and Fr. Raciappa became fast friends. Daddy had no respect for his priesthood, but he did like and respect John Raciappa as a person. I remember babysitting for the Raciappa boys as he and his wife and Daddy and my stepmother would go out to dinner. The Raciappas were also frequent visitors in our home in South Lakeland.

The Episcopal priest baptized my son and buried both Daddy's wife and his father all on the same day. Grandpa and Anne unexpectedly died within days of each other, so there was a double funeral and it was decided that with everyone in town for the funerals, we might as well baptize the baby. Fr. Raciappa did all the honors.

Fr. Raciappa was a slight man, almost ascetic. But when I first met him, he was wearing muttonchops along with Elvis, which was the style of the day.

Because of my father's connection with The Episcopal Church, it just became logical to start attending St. David's. Then the growing Episcopal church was on the southern edge of town.

Lakeland (42,000) was a much larger city than Prentice (427). In fact, my 1967 graduating class at Lakeland Sr. High School (LSHS) was larger than my entire hometown. That was a shock to my small-town system and sensibilities.

Prentice was small enough I could walk all over town, including to church and to school and to what passed for downtown. Lakeland was spread out and Daddy, not being a believer, didn't cotton to driving me to church on a Sunday morn. He'd sleep in.

The new neighborhood where we lived was carved out of an orange grove. A lot of orange groves were felled during the 1960s to accommodate all the newcomers to Florida. Grandpa was so fascinated to find orange trees in the front yard. He could just walk out the door and pick one.

The closest Lutheran church to me was near St. David's. But it was a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and although I was baptized Evangelical Swedish Lutheran and confirmed by the Lutheran Church in America, I wasn't "Lutheran" enough for the Missouri Synod Lutherans. The local LCA Lutheran church was several miles away, too far to hoof it, but St. David's was less than a mile away, an easy walk for a teenager. I had to pass the Missouri Synod Lutheran church and a Nazarene church on my way to the Episcopal church.

The first ever Episcopal service I went to was at St. David's. At the time it would have been Morning Prayer with sermon and Peter Wallace Fleming was the priest. The "new" church had not been built, but it was on the drawing board.

Fr. Fleming was a growth priest. The churches he served grew. He came to St. David's in 1961 from St. Paul's in Jesup, Georgia and went on to St. Thomas on Snell Island in St. Petersburg in 1976. While at St. David's, the church grew and became an influential part of Lakeland.

It was under Fr. Fleming that St. David's 400 seat church-in-the-round was built and the smaller traditional edifice became the parish hall. That was the going trend in mid -20th century modern church design and it was initially challenging to figure out how to process in.

I first encountered the Inquirer's Class at St. David's under Fr. Fleming. He was a hip priest and he made learning interesting, to say the least. I also encountered EYC (Episcopal Young Churchmen), the Episcopal version of Luther League for high schoolers. It was at St. David's I learned what it was to be an Episcopalian.

The first Episcopal bishop I ever met was at St. David's. Now, so many years later, I know many Episcopal bishops, some even on a first name basis. My father's employer, Bishop Louttit, who was an imposing man, came to St. David's for confirmation.

I was not confirmed by Bishop Louttit. I was eventually confirmed in 1970 by Bishop William Hargrave (I Southwest Florida) at St. Alban's in St. Petersburg Beach. At the time, I was a cub reporter doing live news for a Tampa radio station as the Pinellas County news correspondent. I was attending St. Alban's and learned about daily Morning Prayer, Mass and Evening Prayer there.

I was able to make daily Morning Prayer and the Service of Holy Communion before making my morning news checks, but I wasn't necessarily in town for Evening Prayer. Most times I was covering a story somewhere else in the county.

By the time I was confirmed by Bishop Hargrave, the Diocese of South Florida has been divided into triplet dioceses -- the Diocese of Central Florida (Lakeland); the Diocese of Southwestern Florida (St. Petersburg); and the Diocese of Southeastern Florida (Miami). I covered the creation of the new diocese for the Tampa Tribune.

Like my first encounter with Fr. Raciappa, my Episcopal confirmation is burned into the memory bank of my brain. It was a very dynamic and power experience.

While kneeling before Bishop Hargrave, everything around me turned black. All I could see was the bishop in front of me, the covered chalice on the altar behind him, and the large cross hanging above the altar, as if they were all bathed in a tunnel of light.

When Bishop Hargrave placed his hands on my head, there was a power that went through me like a bolt of lightning. It almost knocked me off my knees and I reached up to grab the bishop to keep from keeling over.

That was my introduction to the power of the Holy Spirit.

One time I asked Bishop Louttit why he hired Daddy to be administrator at Bishopscourt, an Episcopal nursing home, even though my father was not a believing Christian. Bishop Louttit said he did not hire my father for his faith, or lack thereof, but for his skill and ability to run a nursing home.

Some of the biggest fights Daddy and I had were over my faith, but he did come to my confirmation -- both of them: Lutheran and Episcopal. Two of the few times I had ever seen him in church.

The first Episcopal presence in the Lakeland area was All Saints parish, which was founded in the 1880s in Acton and failed, as that small Polk County community itself failed. So, in 1892, the fledging congregation was transplanted a few miles away to Lakeland and eventually a new building was built in 1924 near Lake Mirror in the bustling downtown area. Today that same Spanish Revival building stands as a Lakeland landmark and has been in use as the oldest continuing church building in the city's historic downtown region.

All Saints was light stucco pink when I was a teen, then it went through is golden yellow stage and now it is cream. The only thing that has not changed is its bright terra cotta roof.

Many years later, I was at a midweek service at All Saints when I heard Fr. Raciappa died. I was devastated. He was a childhood friend of the family. He was a powerful preacher and he was the type of priest that when he moved to a new parish many of his former congregants would follow him.

St. David's was one of two All Saints' daughter congregations, the other being Christ the King, which was founded in the 1980s as an Episcopal congregation emphasizing the Charismatic Renewal. Christ the King is the youngest and smallest Episcopal church in Lakeland, and now All Saints has out lived her eldest ecclesial daughter.

The fourth Episcopal church in Lakeland is St. Stephen's, which was founded in 1975 by Fr. Christopher Epting, who was vicar at St. Luke's in Mulberry, to meet the rapid growth in Lakeland, which has become a prime haven for "snowbirds" -- Northerners seeking to escape the winter snows. Fr. Epting went on to become the VIII Bishop of Iowa.

At one time, St. David's was a large thriving Episcopal congregation with a baptized membership of 1,200. At the end, the baptized membership less than half that with an ASA of about 125 with a Plate & Pledge of about $205,000, not enough to keep the lights burning and maintain upkeep on the sprawling, two-acre campus with 23,000 square feet of building space.

As a result, the diminished congregation is uniting with St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and selling St. David's buildings and grounds to Redemption Church for $1.85 million. The sale is expected to be finalized sometime this week.

"Proceeds from the sale of the property will be held by the Diocese of Central Florida, to be used by St. David's and St. Stephen's in the future," St. David's transitional plan explains.

Redemption Church is the upstart Baptist congregation which is doing church-in-a-box each week at the former Lakeland Civic Center. This is the same place that the LSHS Class of '67 held its junior and senior proms.

Already within two years, Redemption Church has outgrown its temporary quarters, consistently drawing double the number of worshippers who attend its services than those who were going to St. David's. The fast-growing Baptist congregation has three pastors and two worship leaders -- all male.

At least St. David's is not falling into the hands of Muslims as The Church of the Good Shephard did in Binghamton, New York; or become a nightclub as The Church of the Holy Communion did in New York City; or to be sold and razed, as Bishop Jon Bruno (VI Los Angles) tried to do with St. James the Great in Newport Beach, California, to make way for high end condominiums. Nor will the church be pressed into secular service. The Gospel will continue to be preached from its pulpit.

But what happened. Lakeland has grown from 42,000 in 1965 to more than 100,000 today. That's a 138% increase in population. There are 58,000 more people in Lakeland today than when I was first in town. Many of those people need to hear the Gospel message of hope and salvation. But was St. David's still preaching the pure Gospel.

Once Fr. Fleming left, St. David's started in a slow downward spiral and in an attempt to be relevant to the times became "a reconciling, affirming, and inclusive Christian community striving through worship, love, and service to welcome all people just as God created you."

Through the years, St. David's became more liberal in theology and practice. That may have played well with the national church, but it was a hard sell in Lakeland and Polk County, Florida which are a socially, politically and spiritually conservative areas.

Lakeland's grande dame is All Saints Church, it is traditional and that church continues to thrive even while other mainline churches in Lakeland have faltered and closed.

St. David's swansong was held last Sunday (Sept. 16). The preacher was Canon Timothy Nunez, Canon to the Ordinary for Bishop Greg Brewer (IV Central Florida).

Canon Nunez was born in Lakeland and grew up at St. David's. He returned to his home church to witness its death and preach at its funeral.

"He reminded the church of its illustrious past, its once-grand worship services and outreach in the community and acknowledged the grief and anger that accompanied its closing," Lakeland Now reported. "He reminded the church of its illustrious past, its once-grand worship services and outreach in the community and acknowledged the grief and anger that accompanied its closing."

"We ask each other, 'How did this happen?' Despite our best intentions, poor leadership, poor decisions and a significant amount of squandering of extraordinary resources took place over the last 42 years," the Canon the Ordinary explained. "Many will carry deep regret to lay at the altar today, and much forgiveness is required of ourselves and others."

In the end, St. David was pastored by Fr. Robert Moses, who not only went across town to come to St. David's but also crossed denominational lines.

At one time he was a Catholic priest at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in downtown Lakeland. His clerical orders were accepted by Bishop John Howe (III Central Florida) in 2008. First, he came St. David's as an assistant and then became the rector in 2013.

Now the Catholic-turned-Episcopal priest will join the clerical staff at St. Stephens as his congregation becomes a part of that parish. There is already one priest and one deacon, both male, at St. Stephen's.

Many are expected to follow their priest to St. Stephen's (6.5 miles south), but not all will. Some might head to All Saints (2.5 miles north) or Christ the King (8 miles north). Others may do a little church hopping and denominational line crossing. Then there will be those who will just opt to stay at home on Sunday.

It's such a shame to see St. David's die. Pardon me as I cry.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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