Houses of worship build for big future

The Rev. Jim Divine welcomes new members to the Lake Deaton campus of New Covenant United Methodist Church. Churches look to cultivate their flocks by building and expanding their properties.

St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church is getting ready to mark a milestone. A ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 15  to offer blessings and say farewell to the church’s Parish Hall and Office. Four days later, work will begin on demolition of the buildings to make way for a new Family Life Center. What’s happening at St. Vincent de Paul is an example of major changes occurring at houses of worship all over the local area. As The Villages continues to grow, churches are seeking to cultivate their flocks by building and expanding their properties. Some are tearing down and building anew, such as St. Vincent de Paul. Others are adding new campuses, including Hope Lutheran Church, New Covenant United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church of Leesburg. Some are expanding, such as the Garden Worship Center. And for Christ Lutheran Church, it means an opportunity to have a permanent home for the first time.

Six houses of worship, all of different faiths and philosophies, but with one common bond — a willingness to expand and spread their message in and around The Villages.

“You are seeing this explosion in and around The Villages,” said Norman Lee Schaffer, pastor of Garden Worship Center. “You have retirees coming to The Villages, coming to Central Florida and realizing that they need to get back to their relationship with God. Perhaps they put that relationship aside when they were younger and building careers, but now that they’ve reached a new stage in life, they now want to make church a big part of that.”

Not only is St. Vincent de Paul building a permanent Family Life Center, an expansion of the main church building also is in the works with the addition of 800 more seats. When complete, the church will have 2,000 total seats, according to Office Manager Star Ciccio.

That’s good news for a church that currently averages nearly 4,000 parishioners who attend its five weekend services. During the winter, Ciccio said, the number goes up to more than 5,000.

“This expansion intends to create a place where God’s love is tangible, visible and real,” Pastor Peter Puntal said.

The new Family Life Center, which the church hopes to complete by Thanksgiving of next year, will house a food pantry, thrift store and outreach program, along with a number of meeting rooms for ministries and events.

“St. Vincent de Paul began with just one little room in what’s now the Parish Hall and Office,” Ciccio said. “Now, our ministries are growing, and the church needs the rooms and space to evangelize and spread the word.”

While St. Vincent de Paul is expanding one property, other churches are responding to Villages growth by opening new campuses.

On Sept. 8, First Baptist Church of Leesburg is preparing to open a permanent Village Park campus adjacent to the Village of Pine Ridge on County Road 466A in Fruitland Park. 

“Village Park continues to grow, and we have the parishioners of The Villages and others to thank for that,” said Art Ayris, First Baptist executive pastor.

Services at the new Village Park campus are planned for 8:30 and 11 a.m. on Sundays.

Ayris said the church is building a permanent worship center that can hold between 1,200 and 1,400 people.

And although the new complex is adjacent to The Villages, he said Village Park is welcoming to all.

“We talked to our senior parishioners on what they’d like to see at Village Park, and they overwhelmingly said they wanted a multi-generational church,” he said. “Our Villages parishioners want to interact with younger local residents and visitors and share their message with them.”

The multi-generational spirit includes the recent hiring of a family pastor, who will specialize in outreach to families and younger parishioners, as well as plans to launch a preschool and children’s rooms at the Village Park campus.

“We call this campus Village Park because it’s our desire to meet the spiritual needs of not just those in The Villages, but also the people in and around Fruitland Park,” Ayris added. “Our doors are open to all.”

Hope Lutheran Church is another area house of worship physically growing by leaps and bounds, tripling its number of campuses in the last 13 months.

At the start of 2018, Hope Lutheran had one campus in The Villages. Last June, the church opened its Lake Weir campus in Summerfield. And just two months ago, it launched its third campus, with Sunday services at Rohan Recreation Center.

“We may be three campuses, but we are one church,” added Len Robertson, Hope Lutheran Church council resident. “We are one mission, one team.”

Hope Lutheran is hoping to close on a land purchase in the southern area of The Villages in coming weeks, which is planned to be the site of construction of a permanent house of worship to replace the Rohan location.

“The services at Rohan have been growing steadily,” the Rev. Bruce Dillman said. “We have two Sunday services there, and we’re averaging about 70 people at both services. And parishioners are known to bring their neighbors to Rohan to show what our church is like.”

Like other area churches, Hope Lutheran credits The Villages parishioners in helping build the church, particularly when it comes to the Lake Weir Campus Food Pantry, which is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursdays.

“When we launched the pantry, there was a huge storm outside that day, and one person showed up at the door,” Dillman said. “Now we are regularly helping 125 households.”

Growth in the southern Villages also inspired New Covenant United Methodist Church to add a second campus.

The church was founded in 2000 and, after holding services at various Villages recreation centers and St. Vincent de Paul, eventually opened its Summerhill Campus at 3470 Woodridge Drive.

“We were a nomad church for a time,” said the Rev. Harold Hendren, New Covenant senior pastor. “But when we had our first service in Summerhill, we almost doubled the numbers we had when we last met at the Savannah Center.”

Hendren said around 2011, he began noticing the strong population growth.

“We wanted to stay ahead of Villages growth and be at the right place at the right time,” he said.

By 2012, New Covenant held additional services at Eisenhower Recreation Center. And after several years of planning and building, the Lake Deaton campus opened at 6500 Wesleyan Way in time for Christmas services in December.

“Villagers and other parishioners have been very willing to help us financially to expand,” Hendren said. “I had a vision that we should expand south, and the parishioners believed in that. Now we have around 3,000 people attending services at both campuses every weekend.”

Hendren believes in more expansion and said he hopes to see a third campus develop near The Village of Fenney down the road.

While some houses of worship are happy to see their number of campuses increase, others are simply looking for a permanent home to call their own.

On July 9, a hot Tuesday morning in Summerfield, dozens of parishioners stood outside to witness the placement of a steeple at what will soon be the new home of Christ Lutheran Church. For church leaders and others, the steeple placement marked an important milestone in a three-year journey.

Christ Lutheran formed in 2016 when 250 members left another church due to disputes with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. For three years, the parish lived the nomadic life, holding services at Orange Blossom Hills Community Center, said Don Chase, who was Christ Lutheran’s council president when it formed.

Chase and others said Christ Lutheran’s parishioners, a number of whom are Villagers, remained hopeful that a permanent home would be found.

“Despite our situation, we have been able to continue our mission work and hold regular services,” he said. “Our parishioners have always been willing to step up and volunteer when need be.”

The groundbreaking of the new church at 15699 SE 80th Ave., was in January. Now, Chase and others hope if all goes well, the building could be open for services as early as the end of the year.

“It’s been a long journey, but we were always confident this would be the end result,” he said.

One definition of cultivate is to foster growth, which is what all of these houses of worship are doing. But cultivate also means preparing for the raising of crops, and at the Garden Worship Center in Belleview, both definitions are taken to heart.

As soon as you drive onto the property, the muscadine grapevines to the left of the entrance are very noticeable. There are 84 plants in all. And that’s just the beginning.

Schaffer is thinking big, building on 20 acres that he said will take parishioners and visitors back to the Holy Land in Biblical times.

The public can visit a nativity stable, where they can meet live animals, including a camel. Work continues on the Walk of Faith, where visitors come close to a host of life-size animal sculptures. Parishioners can walk up Mount Calvary, where they can see and touch three crosses representing where Jesus was crucified.

Preparations also are in hand for a new church building, which Schaffer envisions as three stories tall, able to hold 3,000 people and resembling the Garden of Eden inside.

“I started the Garden Worship Center nearly a decade ago in a storefront in Belleview,” Schaffer said. “That first service, we had to turn 40 people away. We have been growing and expanding ever since, and the people of The Villages have played an incredible part in that.”

Schaffer described residents of The Villages as enthusiastic in helping his church grow.

“I never have an issue if a Villager wants to help me move some boulders, volunteer in our cafe or other projects,” he said. “They don’t complain and are always excited about maintaining and expanding the church.”

Schaffer said God taught him patience when it comes to all this growth, and he knows he may not be around when all is said and done.

“We will continue to build long after I’m gone,” he said. “I want the church to never stop building as we hand it to future generations.”

James Dinan is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or james.dinan@thevillagesmedia.com.