Local News

Church seeks help to fulfill expansion plans

Highlands Today SEBRING - The Rev. Ismael Monzon likes to build churches, but his sanctuaries don't just try to provide salvation to the people who come to pray but also the very places they are meeting. A former bar in Avon Park where a bartender was brutally murdered became the Iglesia Pena de Horeb Pentecostal Inc.'s Avon Park branch. Monzon said he was fasting in the hills of Puerto Rico, where he's from, when he got a call from God to go to Avon Park.
This missionary who has even ministered in a church in the middle of the Amazon jungle did just that. The former bar on State Road 64, which closed down after Betty Sue Spurlock's murder, became his first Highlands County church. Then a nondescript home on State Road 17 in Sebring, which became a notorious site of a twisted tale of deception and murder that was featured in a TV documentary and even the New York Times, become the Sebring church of the Iglesia Pena de Horeb Pentecostal Inc. The church group bought the house in 1999 and redid the interior. The home where the Rev. John Canning killed Leo and Hazel Gleese, his 90-year-old parishioners, became a full gospel church where people prayed and children learned the word of God. Monzon said he realized when they bought the place that one day they would run out of room. That day is finally here, he said, and his daughter, Maritza Ayala, who now is a co-pastor of the Sebring church along with her husband, David, agreed with a nod. Three years ago they had three people attend the church, said Maritza Ayala, who teaches Sunday school. Now, they could have 35 to 40, she said. While kids between the ages of 2 to 11 crowd around for Sunday school in a little room, the teens and adults have to share the sanctuary with a makeshift curtain dividing them. Realizing that something had to be done about their growing pains, they decided they needed to expand and started planning to build a multi-purpose room attached to the sanctuary. Then the City of Sebring informed them that if they wanted to expand in the same location they would need at least an acre, which they don't have. After 20 years of building three churches in Highlands County, in Avon Park, Sebring and Lake Placid, without seeking any help, Monzon realized that he now needed some community benefactors if he wanted to expand the Sebring church. Ayala said they are looking for anyone who has an acre of land to donate in Sebring, or perhaps an abandoned building that could be their new home. Monzon said there is a possibility the City of Sebring might sell a lot next to the Sebring church, which would eliminate the space problem, but if that does not materialize, they would need to explore the other options. "In 20 years, it's the first time we have asked for help," said Monzon. City of Sebring officials did not return phone calls seeking comments but Monzon provided a letter from Sebring Planning and Zoning Director Jim Polatty informing them about the one-acre requirement. Ayala said they also have a building fund set up for anyone who wants to make monetary donations. To reach Maritza Ayala, call 863-257-1390; David Ayala can be reached at 863-257-1510.