Florida church expanding to include second campus as St. Augustine region’s population booms

By David Paulsen
Posted Sep 15, 2023
Trinity Episcopal Church

The congregation at Trinity Episcopal Church worships in a historic building in downtown St. Augustine, Florida. It has begun construction on a second campus about a half hour away in a rapidly growing part of the county. Photo: Trinity Episcopal Church

[Episcopal News Service] The value of “location, location, location” isn’t just a real estate industry truism. It also can be a big factor in church planting, with congregational growth often following population growth, and few places in the United States are growing faster than St. Johns County and the city of St. Augustine, Florida.

St. Johns’ population increased 44% from 2010 to 2020. Now totaling about 300,000 residents, its population is expected to rise to 400,000 by 2040.

“Literally everywhere you drive between here and Jacksonville there’s another 100 homes going in,” the Rev. Matt Marino told Episcopal News Service. Trinity Episcopal Church, where Marino serves as rector, draws about 450 worshipers to its three Sunday services, filling its historic downtown St. Augustine building and its parking lot nearly to capacity.

Rapid growth is a problem most churches would welcome. Now Trinity is adding a second campus about a half hour north in what historically has been a more rural part of the county. Developers there are fast turning farmland, ranches and pine groves into sprawling housing developments. In Trinity North Campus’ phase one, construction is underway on a new parish hall and a preschool. A church building is envisioned in a later phase of construction. The official opening of Trinity North Campus is scheduled for September 2024.

“We were looking around, and we realized there’s a 30-mile circle with no Episcopal Church,” Marino said. In the middle of that circle, the Diocese of Florida negotiated the purchase of about 13 acres on Highway 16 from the developer of one of the region’s new housing developments. When the $11 million project is completed, the new church will be surrounded by 16,000 new houses.

The Rev. Curt Benham, associate rector, has begun engaging with some of the people who already have moved into recently completed homes. Benham, a Jacksonville native, brings a background in church planting. He joined Trinity’s staff about three years ago, when the congregation’s vision of a second campus was taking shape.

“It was a part of what attracted me to Trinity,” Benham told ENS. The timing couldn’t have been better for a second campus in that location. “When I moved here, it was hardly developed at all,” he said. Now, thousands of new homes fill the landscape.

Marino and Benham made clear that Trinity will remain a single congregation. The second campus isn’t intended as a separate church plant and will be overseen by Trinity’s vestry and served by each of Trinity’s clergy, though it may grow as a distinct worshipping community, with Benham as lead pastor.

When the first phase of construction is complete, Benham will lead worship services in the new parish hall, which will have a capacity of about 175. Fundraising will continue until the congregation has the money needed for construction of a more traditional worship space, though there is no set timeline for that phase of the project.

On Sept. 24, Benham will begin leading Evening Prayer with a “launch team” of 40-50 people, who effectively will form the backbone of the new worshiping community. They worked out an arrangement with a cattle rancher to worship in the private chapel on his ranch, about two miles from the Trinity North Campus location. Those services will take place monthly until January, when a weekly schedule will begin. The first Eucharist will be celebrated in September 2024, once the parish hall is completed.

And while location is important, Marino and Benham also emphasized meeting the spiritual needs of the community around the second campus.

“We just think that what we have to offer as The Episcopal Church is really of value,” Marino said. “There’s no place for all of these people moving here to hear the good news of Jesus presented in a liturgical and sacramental way that’s connected to the world they live in.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.