TAMPA, Fla. — A 115-year-old church is getting a new life under a haze of smoke.
Services haven't been held at the First Congressional Church for decades. The old building is now getting a new life from some ambitious entrepreneurs.
Tampa is known as the cigar capital of the world. That is what led cigar aficionado Angela Yue to move from California to Florida.
"California is just not the most conducive place to have a business, let alone a tobacco-centered business, and Tampa being the cigar capital of the world, this is the most appropriate place to be," Yue said.
Yue said the inside of the church mainly was drywall and office cubicles. During renovations, Yue saved a lot of the church's original features.
"It was such a unique building to renovate and to preserve the brick walls, the corridors, the floors. You really don't find a project like this every day," Yue said.
You can see the bricks permanently stained with black soot from a fire that tore through the cathedral. And, when you drive by the church on the corner of North Florida and East Frances Avenue, you would never know it wasn't still a church holding services.
"I hope we have something for everyone here," Yue said.
The business, Grand Cathedral Cigars, is open to the public and offers private memberships. That's why Yue said they dedicated the entire second floor to members only.
"We really wanted to give our members a place for privacy for them to conduct business meetings and whatnot, so we dedicated the entire second floor to our members, which is something unique to Tampa," Yue said.
ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska spoke to a local author and historian, John Cinchett, about the history of the church. In 2018, Cinchett published Historic Tampa Churches. A book filled with 200 vintage images of sacred places across the area. Cinched showed us two photos of the church taken in 1919.
And, Cinchett was able to shed light on how the fire started in the cathedral, telling us sometime in the 1980s, "the old church was abandoned and fell into a critical state of disrepair. It sat there sadly falling apart for over 20 years. Homeless people were sleeping in it, and one night they built a bonfire inside the church, and it caught fire, and the entire roof collapsed, and it did massive damage, all the stained-glass windows shattered. It was local philanthropist Nick Cutro who saved the church and turned it into a community center in 2005."
Yue said she hopes her business will honor the past and be a symbol for history buffs and cigar enthusiasts.
"We are honestly so absolutely blessed because coming from California, Florida is just so refreshing we are not used to a place like Tampa where the city is so supportive of us the community here in Tampa Heights," Yue said.
The business is still in its soft opening phase but has a grand opening for late May.
Cinched is a third-generation Tampa native and said he is "so glad the property owners have maintained the church because not only is it one of the most historic structures in Tampa Heights, but it also serves as a symbol of those countless men and women who selflessly labored for the growth of the church, who ministered to the poor and underprivileged during Tampa's early years, a time when there was no government assistance. It was the churches who met the needs of the community,"
And if you wanted to know where the original congregation is today — Cinchett told me he found that out too.
"They sold the church to the Polish American Democratic Club in 1959," Cinchett said. "That congregation still operates today. They are now the First United Church of Tampa, and they currently meet at the St John Presbyterian Church property at 4120 MacDill Ave. They have big plans to expand and are planning to build a new church and community center."