EAST MANATEE -- Surrounded by trees, song birds and a tranquil pond, a land that personifies peace fits the name of a church that will grace it.
Peace Presbyterian Church has found a new home at 12705 State Road 64 E in East Manatee where a gentle breeze swept through the trees this week as a fountain carried a mist through the property hidden from the busy highway.
"It's such a peaceful place. It's like it was intended for us or something," said the Rev. Elizabeth Deibert, admiring the beauty of the 23 acres. The tranquil property that the church now calls home was owned by Tropicana founder Anthony T. Rossi, who pur
chased land for his religious pursuits through Aurora Ministries after he sold his juice company to Beatrice Foods in 1978. The foundation used the 15,000-square-foot building for its Bibles on tape business designed to service the blind, but with cassette tapes a thing of the past, Aurora vacated the building. The village for retired missionaries, Il Villagio, still stands today beside the building that now houses Peace Presbyterian.
The church has about 250 members growing from a small group in 2006 starting at State College of Florida before moving on to the Manatee Association of Realtors building on Technology Terrace in Lakewood Ranch to try to accommodate a congregation whose attendance started to grow markedly in 2010.
Peace Presbyterian, is considered a progressive church, Deibert said, with the goal to make everyone feel welcomed.
"We hope whenever they're here for work or play or for worship, we hope they find authentic relationships being fostered and something to inspire them," Deibert said.
During its beginnings, the church searched for a pastor and found Deibert and her husband, Richard, who have experience in developing new churches after serving in Alabama for a decade. Her husband isn't on the staff, but is a minister and physician who works in Arcadia.
Peace set out to find a new space, but had a run of bad luck until it found the 23-acre parcel in East Manatee with 13,000 square feet of building space.
"We had secured five acres on Lorraine Road, and we couldn't afford to do what it was going to take to build a space large enough for the church there. We dropped that idea because it was going to cost $3 million," she said. "Then we went to a foreclosed church on Lorraine Road, and we were close to buying it, but we found it had a mold problem."
The Association of Manatee Realtors needed to move into its building after selling another property it used, and as the lease was running out, Peace was holding worship inside of a warehouse. Fortunately, the former Aurora building was available in time, and church members are rushing to get the building prepared in time for worship services in December. They expect to grow into an additional Sunday or Saturday night service.
Now, Peace Presbyterian can handle the growth without having to move space-to-space or transform an event space to a church-like setting every week.
"We had to set up our Sunday sanctuary every week and move tables and chairs to make it more worshipful," Deibert said. "To have our own space is pure delight, and we want to make sure we use it to our fullest capacity and serve the community."
Kathy Flora and her husband were part of the small group starting Peace Presbyterian before moving away for a short time north to Washington, and still considered Peace as their church while away. She's happy to be back home with the church as it's growing.
"To have our own home, finally, after moving around a lot is one of the biggest joys," Flora said. "We're planted now, we're here, and now we can start serving the community in different ways and a broader way."
Because the worship space is tight, Peace will start construction on a 210-seat sanctuary in 2015, Deibert said. The county commission unanimously approved the development plan Nov. 7.
In the meantime, meetings, music groups and choirs will use the space, and after each Sunday service, church members will help get the place ready. Soon it will look less like a professional office building, ridding itself of the security gate and Aurora sign, and look more like a church.
"Sunday after worship instead of having any of our classes or coffee time, we will all jump in our cars, drive over here and work together all Sunday afternoon to get the place painted, cleaned up and landscaped," she said.
The goal is that Jan. 1 the office building will look like a church. The congregation has planned an open house for the community sometime that month. Their goal is to draw people off of a speedy S.R. 64 to pull into the serene spot and enjoy the nature and the trees.
The congregation has chiefly raised the money itself, starting with a $1 million campaign to buy the property and for a sanctuary. At least one more fundraising campaign about two years from now will be needed for Peace to complete its vision. Grants have helped Peace along the way for its new church. The First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin provided a $35,000 grant through the church's foundation, Dana Beck Francher Missions. In 2009, the church received a $50,000 grant from the Sam and Helen R. Walton Foundation, named for the founder of Walmart, to contribute toward site acquisition and capital improvements for the church.
The church also dedicates itself to giving 10 to 20 percent of its budget each year to those in need, she added. During Sunday's service, the church also will collect funds for Typhoon Haiyan victims in the Philippines, being distributed through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
The new space features plenty of rooms for the church's functions, from a playroom, daycare, choir room and administration office. It is also open to hosting a Boy Scout troop or Alcoholics Anonymous support group and wants to start a community children's choir, Deibert said. The open front lawn where the sanctuary will be built is perfect for the church to hold Christian soccer camps and its International Day of Peace event each October, Deibert said, allowing it to invite the whole neighborhood.
"We've never had a space where we could invite the whole community," she said. "Now we can imagine tents set up and all kinds of international food and celebrating a call to world peace."
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.