By Debbie Flessner
When Siesta Key architect Jim Holliday and his wife Scottie, and Presbyterian pastor Dr. James Blackwood and his wife Louise began looking around Siesta Key for a place to put their new church in 1970, they only had about 25 to 30 people in their congregation—and that included their own families.
They had all been members of the Pine Shores Presbyterian Church, on the mainland, but The Presbyterian council for this area had asked the church to help sponsor a new one on Siesta Key. Dr. Blackwood was the pastor who was called by the Session, the ruling body of the church, to be the pastor at the new church.
For five years the small group held their worship services in the auditorium at the Out-of-Door School (now Out-of-Door Academy), while Louise Blackwell played the piano.
As their congregation grew, they sought out a spot on Siesta Key to build a place of their own. According to Jim’s son Craig, who is now a Sarasota General Contractor, the path to finding a new location was a rocky one.
“The church was supposed to be built in two different locations before it ended up here,” he said. “The first choice was around Ocean Boulevard and Treasure Boat Way, but there was a big uproar about that, with letters to the Pelican Press and people worrying about the church parking lot attracting motorcycle gangs. Then there was another location down by the village, but that didn’t work out, either.”
Eventually, the group settled on a lovely, wooded hammock adjacent to the Out-of-Door school. The chapel, designed by both Holliday and Blackwood, was built on stilts and constructed of pine and rough-sawn cedar–plain, natural and strong. Windows and sliding doors of clear glass surrounded the open sanctuary and overlooked palms, oaks, cedars and towering pines.
The effect, when sitting in the room, is that of being up among the trees, hence the nickname the chapel was given, “God’s Treehouse.” For services when there is pleasant weather outside, or occasions where there is an overflow crowd, the glass doors are opened wide, bringing the surrounding nature inside.
Craig Holliday well remembers the idyllic days growing up with his older brother Michael and younger sister Suzanne across the street from the church, when there was only one other house around and only one paved road on the island.
“This area was full of heavy, dense woods, and we built our own treehouse on the corner of the property,” he said. “The acoustics in the sanctuary were phenomenal—my dad had a bluegrass band and they would come over here at night and play music for hours.”
He added that Dr. Blackwood used to conduct worship services in the round, meaning he would stand in the middle and speak to the congregation surrounding him. There were no pews in the sanctuary, because he wanted to be able to change the chairs’ configuration in the room whenever he wanted.
Over the years, Sunday School rooms, a nursery, meeting rooms, a fellowship hall and kitchen, and an office and study for the pastor have been added. And since he developed a love of architecture in his father’s office and eventually became a General Contractor with his own company, the Holliday Group, Craig has been involved in all the Siesta Key Chapel construction in the last 20 years.
Dr. Blackwood was the Siesta Key Chapel pastor until Dr. H. Ray Woody succeeded him in 1982. From 1995 to 2002, Reverend David Bruce Cozad was the third church pastor and following a brief interim ministry under Rev. Marty Hager, Dr. Kathleen Wiggins accepted the Call in June of 2003.
After Dr. Wiggins retired just this past summer, Dr. Thomas Cook was brought in as interim pastor, while the church conducts their search for a permanent pastor. He said that typically, it takes about a year to 18 months to fill a Presbyterian pastoral position, but having been coming to Siesta Key with his family since 1981, he’s happy to stay as long as needed.
“For my wife Martha, this is her happy place,” he said. “Pastor Kathi left a very healthy church, and was really loved by her congregation. What I’m trying to do now is to help them figure out what their vision for the future of the church is and figure out how we can prepare ourselves for it. What is the church we want to leave for our generations?”
For Craig, whose whole family was confirmed, married and memorialized at Siesta Key Chapel, the past, present and future of the church is ingrained in his DNA. And just as his parents always welcomed any child from the neighborhood into their home, the church they helped to found will continue to invite in any and all worshipers with open arms.
Dr. Cook says that it’s the exceptionally kind people of Siesta Key Chapel, as well as the natural setting, that make it so incredibly special.
“Hospitality is a very important part of the culture of this congregation,” he said. “People come from all over the place to worship here, and they’re used to being strangers in a new land. This is such a welcoming congregation to everyone, and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from.”
The Siesta Key Chapel is located at 4615 Gleason Avenue. Worship services are currently Sunday at 10 a.m., but during season, another Sunday service will be added. For more information, visit the website at http://siestakeychapel.org or call the office at 941-349-1166.