A Look Back at St John’s History
In the beginning was the green trailer. Founding members of St. John’s remember when services were held at Belcher Elementary and Oak Grove Middle schools, and they would rotate pulling the trailer behind their cars to transport the cross and altar, lectern, communion vessels, prayer and hymn books, vestments, kneelers and other paraphernalia needed for a service. “Such a weekly packing and unpacking!” is how a history of the church described those early days of lugging around everything in the green trailer.
It was 50 years ago that St. John’s started out as a mission church, sponsored by Church of the Ascension, and a handful of people began worshiping in spaces rented in the schools on Belcher Road. The first service was on Sept. 11, 1966, at Belcher Elementary. A year later the church moved to larger quarters at Oak Grove.
With the Rev. Edward C. Chalfant as vicar, the mission grew rapidly, and its vestry soon purchased the six-acre site on Belcher where the present church is located. The first service in the wooded field that was to become St. John’s was an outdoors Maundy Thursday service – in effect, the first Mass on the Grass. Architect Joe McClung designed the cruciform church (in the shape of a cross), whose inverted wood roof resembles the hull of a ship. The altar was made of stone from a limestone quarry near Bradenton, and the only way it could fit in the door was by letting air out of the forklift’s tires. The building was dedicated on Oct 13, 1968, with Bishop William L. Hargrave officiating.
Four years later, St. John’s was accepted as a full-fledged parish by the Diocese of Southwest Florida, at the same time as it gained its first rector, the Rev. Philip M. Duncan II. He went on to become the church’s longest-serving rector, from 1972 until 1993. During his tenure, the parking lot was paved, lighted and landscaped; the 13-rank Reuter pipe organ was installed, and the project to construct the two-story Ministry Center got under way and was completed in 1995. Significant achievements included participation in a refugee resettlement program that sponsored families from Laos and Nigeria; a weekly TV program, The Sea of Faith; the addition to the sanctuary of etched-glass windows based on the prayer book canticle A Song of Creation; and establishment of The Pilgrimage, a healing ministry for the mind, body and spirit.
St. John’s has been a progressive parish in a time of dramatic change in the Episcopal Church. When the liturgy underwent a fundamental alteration with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which was initially resisted by many congregations, the revised edition promptly appeared in the St. John’s pews. The church sponsored the first woman in the diocese to go to seminary and become a priest, the Rev. Carol Schwenke. In 1989, during a Sunday service at St. John’s, The Rev. Tanya Beck, an assistant rector (and founder of The Pilgrimage), was the first woman priest in the diocese to celebrate the Eucharist. This year, a same-sex marriage ceremony was performed at the church. Two former St. John’s clergy became bishops. The Rev. Chalfant was bishop of Maine from 1986 to 1996. The Rev. Duncan was bishop of the Central Gulf Coast for 14 years, until his retirement in 2015.
At St. John’s, the Rev. Duncan proved to be a tough act to follow. Following his departure, the church went through more than a decade in which it had a series of short-term and interim rectors. Continuity was restored with the 2003 arrival of the Rev. Glad R. McCurtain, who was priest in charge and then rector until her retirement in 2014. Under her leadership, St. John’s bolstered its justice ministries by joining what became FAST, an interfaith organization that works to address needs in education, criminal justice, homelessness and other community issues. She was instrumental in starting Meals of Hope, a collaboration by St. John’s and five other Episcopal churches to stage an annual food pack for the hungry.
A new era began at the end of 2014, when the vestry called the Rev. Kathleen Walter to be priest in charge. This past April, she was installed as the fifth rector of St. John’s.