Aug. 22 marks 25 years since a group of faithful Catholics assembled in a storefront at the Village Center on Bell Shoals Road to celebrate the first Mass of St. Stephen Catholic Church.
Founding parishioner Rockie Woods recalls the church's humble beginnings.
“It wasn’t much to look at,” Woods recalled. “We had metal folding chairs with a portable altar.”
Each time the parishioners stood, there was a cacophony of noise as the chairs scooted across the bare concrete floor.
But to those who had worked so hard to establish a parish in the growing area south of Bloomingdale Avenue, that first Mass was a thing of beauty.
“We’d waited so long,” said Rockie. “Everyone was in awe that we were finally having a Mass. Everything was new and exciting.”
The Rev. Jim Johnson, then 34, had been ordained just seven years before, and was excited to be assigned to his first parish. He divided his time between St. Stephen and MacDill Air Force Base where he served as reserve chaplain.
"This was a challenge, starting a brand new parish where none existed before," said Johnson.
Johnson remembers arranging 300 folding chairs in rows for that first Mass at the storefront. Only 20 were empty.
“For the first few weekends, I expected things to be slow while the word of our opening spread through the Catholic community,” he said. “Needless to say, the response was beyond my greatest expectations.”
St. Stephen was a mission of Nativity Catholic Church, the only Catholic church in the area at that time. And, with 4,500 registered families, Nativity was beginning to experience growing pains.
Anticipating the need for a new church, Bishop W. Thomas Larkin of the Diocese of St. Petersburg had purchased 17.54 acres at 5049 Bell Shoals Road where St. Stephen Catholic Church now sits in 1982.
While waiting for the permanent church to be constructed, parishioners congregated in the 3,255-square-foot storefront that now houses the Bell Shoals Beef O’ Brady’s restaurant. But it wasn't long before the fledgling parish outgrew the space. By September, St. Stephen had 865 registered members.
So, it was a relief to Johnson when the parish was able to break ground on a 24,000-square-foot building to house its growing membership on Nov. 15, 1987.
A year after breaking ground, in November 1988, the parish, then 1,800 members strong, moved into the current building at 5049 Bell Shoals Road.
"This, here, is our beacon of faith," Johnson told the congregation at the dedication ceremony. "I pray it will be a symbol of the deep faith that is living in this vibrant community of St. Stephen and a symbol to those who drive by, who may not be Catholic or even Christian and don’t know any of us, that they may feel a presence of God on this property.”
The dedication of the new church proved to be a magical moment for the founding parishioners, said Woods, who is now serving on an anniversary committee charged with planning activities for the year.
“I raised my three girls at St. Stephen. All three made their confirmation here and all four of my grandchildren have been baptized here,” she said. “This church has been a very important part of my life.”
Today, St. Stephen supports more than 100 active ministries, hosts six Masses each Saturday and Sunday, and has 15,000 registered parishioners.
As the parish looks back on 25 years of growth, it also looks forward to the future.
St. Stephen is in the midst of a capital building campaign to raise funds to build a new church and parish center on property it owns on Boyette Road where St. Stephen Catholic School is located.
Plans call for a 1,600-seat, 38,000-square-foot church, twice the size of the existing facility, along with a 19,000-square-foot youth center.
The church will kick off its anniversary celebration Wednesday, Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. with a special Mass led by its pastor, the Rev. William Swengros, followed by a dessert social.
On that evening, parishioners also will get a preview of an anniversary video prepared by parishioner Al Larson, reviewing the first 25 years of the parish.
Other upcoming plans for the year include a special Mass with Bishop Robert Lynch and past priests from St. Stephen, a gala anniversary dinner-dance and the burial of a time capsule on the property of the future church on Boyette Road.