Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ has a unique angle when it comes to the
displacement of black churches in the Gas Plant area. When the city decided to scrap plans for an industrial park and position itself to lure a Major League Baseball team, the brother of its Senior Pastor was a sitting member of St. Petersburg’s City Council.
Welch, who was only the second African-American to hold a seat on the city council was elected in 1981 and served three terms in office - from 1981-89 and 1993-97. His, “Political record and persuasive style made him a power broker in this city's black community.” Among his notable accomplishments during his time on the city council, was his support of the city’s quest for “Redevelopment of the Gas Plant area where he had grown up, resulting in Tropicana Field. (Meacham, 2019)”
Not only was Welch, a respected councilman, he was also a member of one of
St. Petersburg’s influential black families. He ran a successful accounting business, one of several entrepreneurial endeavors owned by members of the Welch family.
In 2013, the Welch family experienced the loss of two of their patriarchs, Elder Clarence Welch in February and David Welch, in September.
After the passing of his father, Elder Ricardo Welch would be appointed Senior Pastor of Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ. I sat down with him to get his perspective on being one of the final three churches to leave the Gas Plant area.
Renovation and Restoration
Elder Welch and I are the same age. Like many of our peers, we were both born and raised in St. Petersburg, educated in Pinellas County Schools, and raised our families in St. Petersburg.
During our meeting, I did not ask him about the tragedy that hit his immediate family four years earlier and two years after the passing of his father and uncle.
His three daughters, Tehira (18), India (24), and La’Mour (29), died in a car accident as they returned home from a religious convention in August of 2015.
In talking to him, I was amazed that someone could suffer such a tremendous loss and still exhibit a profound love of Christ. His excitement and anticipation for the future of “the church” were undeniable, and he displayed an unwavering faith, despite what he has endured. He mirrors the faith of his late father.
Before our meeting, I checked out the church's website. The following is from the church’s "Historical Perspective."
- Throughout the years, 14th Street Church of God in Christ, the original name of the church, continued to grow and prosper under the auspices of such men of God as Elder Barr, Elder Smith, Elder Nettles, Bishop E. V. Johnson, and the late Senior Pastor, Superintendent (Elder) Clarence Welch.
Under the pasturage of Bishop Johnson, the old wooden church was renovated.
In 1964, he appointed Elder Clarence Welch as Pastor. Elder Welch was led of the Lord to change the name of the church to Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ.
On March 25, 1984, dedication services were held at the newly reconstructed Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ located at 1135 37th Street South, Saint Petersburg, Florida. -
Accepting the Calling
Elder Ricardo Welch was the youth pastor at the time of his father’s passing. He was the likely successor and was elevated to the role the same year. He and his wife, Darlene Butler-Welch, have accepted their leadership roles with class and grace.
Prayer Tower celebrated its 101st anniversary this year, but Welch also sees God’s favor in other churches. “The longevity of churches in this area is awesome, Bethel just celebrated 125 years. They are the oldest African American church in St. Pete and remain at their original location. There was a smaller church there that was once a white church and they built on to it.” He adds that the church is in Methodist Town and was part of an era “when black people were moving north instead of south.”
Back to his church’s history, he talks about the church being founded by Elder Harris. “It started in a tent and then moved to a mission.
Bishop E. D. Johnson was actually living in the east, but during that time workers on the railroad were coming from the east coast to the west coast. He was in Ft. Piece part of the month and then here the other part. He ended up connecting with the small 14th Street church and that’s how we got our beginnings.”
Finally, I have found someone familiar with Cooper’s Quarters. Welch says he remembers the neighborhood from the Gas Plant area as he shares that before their relocation, the church was “at the bottom of the hill on 4th Avenue South and 14th Street.”
I’m trying to recall landmarks in the area, but the truth is I only have one or two real memories and points of reference. My father lived in a rooming house on 3rd Avenue South when he first relocated to the city from his home town of Miccosukee, in North Florida. As children, we would return to the area with him when he went to visit old friends. It explains why I was comfortable riding my bike down there with my best friend Carla. One summer during middle school we stumbled upon the city’s bicycle compound. It was the place where people went to register their bikes or pick-up a stolen bicycle that had been recovered. As I share the story, Welch says he knows exactly where the compound was located.
“Yes, that was right around the corner from us. Our family had a couple of businesses. There was Betterway Cleaners, Charley’s Pool Room, and they had a tavern, but I can’t remember the name but it was going towards the big tanks.
You know they had those big gas tanks on 4th Avenue that were huge. That was my biggest memory. You could see them from anywhere. I remember Tillman’s Market and Webb’s City. Then there was my granddaddy’s wood yard and Peterman’s Market up on 16th Street. Across the street was the barbecue stand which was Henrietta’s.”
He continues to enlighten me on all the places once located in and near the Gas Plant area. “I know you know about 22nd Street (the Deuces). But in the Gas Plant area, there was Galilee, First Baptist, and New Hope.” He added naming a couple of churches once located there.
I recall a friend of mine had recently told me Galilee was down there. As I have been doing my research, I’ve learned there were phases to the dismantling of the area. Integration, the I-175 extension, redevelopment plans and eventually baseball, all played a part in chipping away at our history until it was all but a memory.
“Yes, the interstate came through first and got Galilee and some of those other churches. But we fought it for a really long time. We said no, this is a historic church. When they got First Baptist Institutional, we pretty much knew it was over because they were probably the oldest church in the area.”
Although First Baptist Institutional preceded Prayer Tower, their location at the time of the move was not their original building. Therefore, they were no more likely to receive a historical designation than any of the other churches in the area.
Remembering the Good Old Days
Do you have a pretty good memory of being displaced? I asked. His answer exuded his pride in being the legacy of a prominent family with strong religious and political ties. “Oh yes!” His enthusiasm was telling of someone with fond memories of their childhood. Yet, despite many challenges, he chooses to see the good in every situation.
The displacement of the church had to be a hard pill to swallow, so how did he feel when he learned they had to move.
“During that time I was a senior in high school about to graduate. Three years before that we had just added on to the church. It included an educational building, a second story, and we remodeled the kitchen. We were excited!
We had installed new carpet and pews in the sanctuary. We also had just purchased land across the street from the church; it was an acre of land. There were some older homes on the property and some two-story homes next to it that were kind of dilapidated and rundown. We were planning on getting that also because we wanted to build another church.
That was the vision of my dad Clarence Welch along with his brothers David and Johnny and my uncle Albert Davis. They were the pioneers of that time, and they were going to build a nice edifice for us. But when the city came in and had their idea for the development. The city wanted to buy the land for a stadium and that put the brothers in a perplexing situation. They didn’t believe God wanted the church to move because it was on Holy Ground.”
Having his uncle on the city council added a twist to the dilemma. “After all of the legal aspects that came from the city and David being on the city council and working with city officials he understood what was going on and he was trying to fight it as well.
It was more of a legacy because Prayer Tower was the first Pentecostal Church of God in Christ in the city. There were numerous churches that sprung off of us in the city. They include Queen Street COGIC, Pentecostal Temple and going all the way up to Bibleway.
Those churches and others like Bible Holiness came out of Prayer Tower. Even now, all the churches come back together. On Thanksgiving week we have what we call Homecoming. We have a service the Wednesday before Thanksgiving every year.”
It was a good thing to have churches on one accord. Some people believe St. Petersburg has entirely too many changes competing for a demographic that is only a fourth of the city’s population. When we look at the future of the church, this may play a big part in the story decades from now.
Putting Up a Good Fight to Save a Legacy
There are some things that only a true believer understands when it comes to God and faith. As he shared his father’s determination to stay in the Gas plant area and fight, I totally got it. To think that your history and your legacy mean everything to you but nothing to the people that want to take it is disheartening. But as we learned with Abraham, God always has a ram in the bush.
“My dad was very adamant about fighting for the legacy and the property. We spent so much time and energy looking at that part of it that we almost missed the blessing God had for us. We only had 2 ½ acres of property that we owned. One day my dad came to the church and said “God spoke to me and told me that I am fighting my blessing. I’m trying to help you, and you’re fighting me.”
One reason the senior Welch wanted to fight for the church was the money they had invested towards the renovations. “He was prepared to fight the city to keep its newly
renovated church.” (White, 1979) When he learned the church was being displaced they were in the midst of a $70,000 renovation. To add insult, the permits for the renovations were issued 12 days after the city declared the Gas Plant area suitable for redevelopment because of its blight and disrepair.
God spoke to the elder Welch and told him to ‘Listen to what they are trying to do…it’s like the prayer of Jabez, I’m trying to increase your territory.’
“God was trying to do that, but we were fighting him. He told my dad to stop fighting and start negotiating with the city and find out what they are asking. By the time we started talking to the city and learned what they were going to give us, it really wasn’t enough.”
In the Increase
According to Welch,“We said no, you have to do better than that. So we started looking around for property and the property we are sitting on right now is 9.5 acres. The property we were sitting on (in the Gas Plant area) was 1.5 acres.
You wouldn’t know it now, but this used to be a palm tree nursery. There were houses on this property, and we had to clear out about 100 palm trees. It didn’t look like the property for an edifice. When you’re thinking about the property for an edifice you’re thinking about land already cleared off. God directed us to this.
Someone came and gave us insight into this property. They said do you see all this? These individual houses are all owned by one family and it’s a nursery but it’s dilapidated because it went out of business.
People were only staying in two of the houses, and they were just renters. The houses were dilapidated, and the city had fines on them and all kinds of stuff. The people were about to be evicted.
Once we got into the legal aspects of it and learned how we could purchase the property, we entered into negotiations.
The city-owned five acres. They paid off all the liens on the first seven. The people who owned the other property paid the city. They then offered us the nine acres. Plus we got the money for our 1.5 acres in the Gas Plant area. That made it sound a lot better. It also helped that they couldn’t go forward with their plans unless they had our old property.”
According to city records, Prayer Tower COGIC received a cash amount of $286,704 in addition to the value of the land they built the new church on.
A New Name
When baseball finally made its way to the Gas Plant area, fifteen years have passed. The stadium had undergone three names and it was once home to the Tampa Bay Lightning before they relocated to Tampa.
“We did an overlay some years later of old St. Pete vs. the new dome,” Welch begins.
“Our church is right where first base is…or right in that area. That was our property. So God had a plan in that for us.
The good thing in that is in all of this we know our dad’s faith and trust in God. That’s why our church is called Prayer Tower. It was originally named the 14th Street Church of God in Christ.
My dad visited New Orleans and while there he went to a church that was named Prayer Tower Church. When he came back, he’d had a revelation and God spoke to him and told him to change the name of the church to Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ.
Because we are a praying church, we came together and prayed about it. The city ended up paying us what we needed plus the property. When we came into this church, we came in debt-free. We paid $14 out of pocket for the doc stamps. We have a $2 million edifice and extra property. That’s a miracle.” He proclaimed.
Having a debt-free church is not something most churches can say they have. Black churches for some reason are always in a season of raising funds or a capital campaign to build a bigger church. What I respect about Prayer Tower is they understand the power of owning their church outright. Regardless of what may come down the road, they will control their destiny.
Photo Credit 1: City of St. Petersburg
Photo Credit 2: The Weekly Challenger Newspaper
Photo Credit 3: City of St. Petersburg
Photo Credit 4: Prayer Tower COGIC
Photo Credit 5: City of St. Petersburg
Photo Credit 6: Tampa Bay Times
Meacham, Andrew. “David T. Welch, Former City Council Member Who Helped Shape St. Petersburg, Dies.” Tampa Bay Times, Tampa Bay Times, 30 Aug. 2019, https://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/david-t-welch-a-former-council-member-who-helped-shape-st-petersburg-has/2142327/.
White, Theresa. “Black Groups Criticize Plans for Gas Plant Area.” St. Petersburg Times, 19 Apr. 1979, p. 6.