With "metal folding chairs" and "a portable altar" St. Stephen Catholic Church, then a mission of Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, held its first mass in a storefront at the Village Center on Bell Shoals Road, according to founding parishioner Rockie Woods.
Twenty-five years later, the congregation of some 15,000 registered parishioners is set to celebrate a Mass tonight, Aug. 22, that will launch a yearlong celebration marking the growth of the church.
It started with just under 300 worshippers at the first Mass, held Aug. 22, 1987, in the strip center that today houses the Beef 'O' Brady's in Valrico.
“It wasn’t much to look at. We had metal folding chairs with a portable altar," Woods said. "We’d waited so long. Everyone was in awe that we were finally having a Mass. Everything was new and exciting.”
- For more on the church's early days, and its planned expansion, read Bloomingdale Patch editor D'Ann White's story, .
Here's some highlights from that report:
- 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.
- St. Stephen was a mission of Nativity Catholic Church, the only Catholic church in the area at that time, which served some 4,500 registered families.
- Anticipating the need for a new church, the Diocese of St. Petersburg, under Bishop W. Thomas Larkin, in 1982 purchased 17.54 acres, at 5049 Bell Shoals Road, where St. Stephen Catholic Church now stands.
- A year after breaking ground in November 1987, the 24,000- square-foot church opened on Bell Shoals Road with some 1,800 members.
- Today, St. Stephen supports more than 100 active ministries, hosts six Masses each Saturday and Sunday, and has 15,000 registered parishioners.
- 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.
What You Need To Know About The St. Stephen Anniversary Celebration:
- The church will kick off its anniversary celebration today, Aug. 22, at 7 p.m. with a special Mass led by its pastor, the Rev. William Swengros, followed by a dessert social.
- Tonight 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.