The Vedanta Center of St. Petersburg, Florida
A Brief History “The opening of this beautiful new Center in 1959 fulfilled a far-reaching religious ideal. With every detail – it’s luxurious tropical setting, its majestic palms overlooking Tampa Bay, its modern air-conditioned temple, its gracious class, and meeting rooms – it offers a unique haven to serious seekers.” The above was from the first bulletin announcing the opening of the new Center at 216 – 19th Ave. SE.
In 1951, Rev. Malcolm McBride Panton came from New York to St. Petersburg with his wife Earnly to become the Minister at the Church of Spiritual Philosophy, located on the south side of the city, near the present location. Both were disciples of Swami Nikhilananda of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York, and used to attend the classes held by Swami Nikhilananda regularly at the New York Center. They were highly accomplished people when they arrived in St. Petersburg and were respected by many. Among other accomplishments, Early was a fine artist, and Malcolm was an advertising copywriter at the New York Times and an art critic for the New Yorker Magazine.
The bulletin continued: “There is a ‘highest common factor’ wherein all the Religions of Humanity meet and become one. It has been named variously “The Eternal Gospel”, “The Perennial Philosophy”, etc. The name is unimportant: ancient sages of India long ago observed, “Truth is one, Humanity calls it by many names”. To this highest Truth, this new Center is dedicated.”
“The purpose of this Center is to stimulate the growth of spiritual understanding through all pathways, in order that each individual may, to paraphrase Saint Paul, be “transformed in the renewing of his or her mind”, and so more fully realize his or her innate at-one-ment with God. To advance this end, the teachings of Vedanta are offered, especially as illustrated and made dynamic in modern times by Sri Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda of India. Vedanta reveals the underlying harmony of all religions and philosophies, all arts and sciences, and points out that they are different approaches to one and the same Reality. It proclaims the potential divinity of all men and women, which is to be manifested through appropriate spiritual disciplines.”
Rev. Panton relocated his church to the present neighborhood in 1958 and changed its name to the Church of Spiritual Philosophy and Vedanta Center. All his lectures and classes drew inspiration from Vedanta in general and Sri Ramakrishna in particular. During this time Swami Nikhilananda was an
inspiration to them.
After the death of Rev. Panton in 1976 and Mrs. Panton in 1983, Swami Adiswarananda, who became the minister in charge of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York became the de facto spiritual leader of the congregation. The small group of dedicated followers, several of whom were his disciples, continued to maintain the regular services of the center under his direction. Also, they approached the Ramakrishna Mission with a prayer that the center is accredited as a branch of the Order. Their prayer was granted finally after 23 years of waiting. Meanwhile many illustrious monks of the Ramakrishna Order continued to visit the center, which included Swamis Ranganathananda, Gahanananda, Atmasthananda, and Smaranananda Maharaj. The General Secretary of the Order, Swami Prabhananda Maharaj, and most of the heads of centers in North America and Europe, both past and present, have visited the center since.
A separate initiative in the mid-1980s was made by the late Swami Bhashyananda of Vivekananda Vedanta Society, Chicago to start a Vedanta Society in South Florida. A condominium in West Palm Beach was donated by a devotee, and monks (including Swami Sarveshananda, Swami Yogeshananda, and Swami Varadananda) were sent by him to conduct regular classes. But that attempt at starting a Vedanta center was short-lived and St. Petersburg became the only official center of the Order on the east coast of the United States south of Maryland.
The Vedanta Center of Saint Petersburg, Florida, is the newest branch outside India of the Ramakrishna Order. Officially started in May 2006 it became the fourteenth branch of the Order in North America. The Center is located in the beautiful Old Southeast neighborhood of the city and is situated on its own one-acre property, one-half block from Tampa Bay and surrounded by lovely landscaped grounds and gardens with varieties of fragrant flowers: oleanders, hibiscus, azalea, wisteria, jasmine, and beautiful tropical trees such as magnolia, mango, pine, oak and varieties of palm. The Center is especially proud of its large collection of Bel Trees spread throughout the gardens.