MANATEE -- After her husband died and she was placed on disability, Bradenton's Mary Ann Relyea came to St. George's Episcopal Church on the edge of Bayshore Gardens to get desperately needed provisions from the church's twice-monthly free food pantry.
Something unusual happened to Relyea and her family along the way to being a beneficiary of the church's benevolence.
Perhaps it was her chats with St. George's young and enthusiastic priest, Father Bryan O'Carroll, or seeing the unfailingly upbeat face of food pantry director Pat Sircy, or meeting fellow food clients while sipping coffee and waiting for her food pantry number to be called, but whatever it was, Relyea soon was unloading trucks and helping stack supplies.
She had become an official food pantry volunteer. So did her son, Charles, 22, daughter Rebecca, 20, and Mary Ann Relyea's partner, Chad Mitchell.
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The Relyeas also attend the church services, which follow Anglican traditions and have set liturgical traditions.
As the church prepares to celebrate its 50th birthday Sept. 14-15 with two special days of events, it is also celebrating its volunteer spirit, church members said.
The birthday celebration kicks off with a carnival on church grounds from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 14. The carnival will feature silent auction theme baskets, free popcorn, "Dragon" dogs in honor of the church's namesake, George the Dragonslayer, drinks, games, crafts and a bounce house.
Music will be by Sir Clay and his Dragonslayers.
The half-century celebration will continue Sept. 15 with a special service and dinner to be attended by former church members and priests as well as current members and the general public, Sircy said.
"We are blessed that several of our volunteers came to us to receive food and asked to help unload the trucks," Sircy said Tuesday. "Mary Ann is a good example. She injured her back and is trying to put her two kids through college. Things are real tight for her. But she now comes to the church at 9 a.m. every first and third Thursday to give out food and to be helped with food."
People like Relyea, who have been led to serve while receiving, are the lifeblood of St. George's, which is not a big church, Sircy said.
The church has only about 20 parishioners at its 8 a.m. Sunday service, also called "Rite 1," and 80 at its second Sunday service, called "Rite 2."
The church also has a 5 p.m. Wednesday Bible study followed at 7 p.m. with a praise and worship contemporary service.
"We have somehow managed to stay on top for 50 years," said congregation member Lyle "Ben" Lund, a church member since 1999. "Despite our size, we feed 150 to 200 families on the first and third Thursday. People start coming at 8:30 a.m. and the parking lot is full. We put a bag of food together. They have to be from our area and they go through a procedure and register with us."
Those needing food pantry services or who wish to volunteer are asked to call the church at 941-755-3606, Lund said.
A priest post-sales
Father O'Carroll, St. George's priest for the last two years, has an inspirational story he shares with all he meets.
At age 34, he was selling art, drafting and office supplies in Sarasota when he decided to go back to church. He and his wife went to St. Winfred's Episcopal Church in Sarasota.
"Something amazing happened," O'Carroll said. "I had an experience with God."
In order to be an Episcopal priest, candidates need a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. O'Carroll had dropped out of high school but had a GED high school equivalency diploma.
It took him 10 years to earn needed accreditations at an estimated cost of $100,000.
"It was all under God's provision," O'Carroll said. "When I needed financial help, someone appeared beside me. There were scholarships and grants that just presented themselves."
Now, O'Carroll believes his mission is to help people find what God is calling them to do. The church has posted its mission on its website.
"We invite those who are waking up each morning realizing they are not exactly doing what they are called to do to come to our church," O'Carroll said. "All I know is that I was called and I followed and I have great peace. I want others to feel the peace I feel from being in the right place at the right time."
Peaceful church feeling
Nancy Lund, Ben Lund's wife, also feels a certain peace at the first Sunday service.
"I like the quietness of the Rite 1 service," Nancy Lund said.
"I like digesting Father O'Carroll's homilies. I think about them all week. I like the stained glass windows in the church, which were donated by church members. I love that we have fresh flowers at the altar each service. The flowers are placed there in honor of loved ones who have died."
Church members greet visitors and invite them into the flock, said Charles Levan, 72, a charter member of the church, which held its first services at a Holiday Inn before its sanctuary was built.
"It's a friendly community of people," Levan said. "When we first started, we were a combination of people from Christ Episcopal Church and Redeemer Episcopal Church in Sarasota who needed a home church in the middle."
The church is part of the Anglican community, Sircy said.
"We are catholic with a small c, meaning universal," Sircy said, speaking of the Anglican tradition. "We are not Roman Catholic. We have traditions that have been part of the church for centuries. The language in our service can sound archaic, but it is also beautiful."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.