History of Our Parish
History from 1566-1850
The story of God’s people over time in Key West shines with hope as they voyaged through an often dark and stormy sea of history guided by Stella Maris.
The Spanish Jesuits came to Florida and, by 1567, a mission was reportedly established on Upper Matecumbe Key to minister to the indigenous people who were soon decimated by smallpox and measles. By 1572, the Jesuit authorities in Spain decided to abandon altogether the mission field of Florida, and the few remaining missionaries were recalled to Mexico. Their order would not return again to Florida until 1743.
By the early 1700s, many of the indigenous people of the Florida Keys had been plying their wares in Havana, making the daring crossing of the Florida Straits in their dugout canoes. Many were professed Catholics, having been baptized by Cuban priests in Havana. During these early missionary years, Florida was a Spanish Territory. The island of Cayo Hueso, as it was first called, fell under the auspices of the Diocese of Havana, Cuba, 90 miles to the south, which was the only diocese with ties to this island village. These early settlers were mostly migratory fishermen from Cuba. There are indications that Cayo Hueso might have been established as a Parish as early as 1724, staffed by a Cuban priest. However, the unpredictable nature of the indigenous habitants and the lack of government protection against the English raiders from the Carolinas, forced the missionaries to return to Cuba in 1727. After this, a priest was only able to visit Key West once or twice a year.
Two Italian Jesuit priest explorers came from Havana and opened a mission chapel for the indigenous people in Key West. Unfortunately, the Spanish governor was unable to offer them any real protection so he ordered them back to Cuba.
This year began the Spanish withdrawal and the British occupation of Florida with most of the missions coming to an end. During the next twenty years of the British occupation, there is no recorded activity by the Catholic Church.
Florida’s second Spanish period, from 1783 to 1821, fared no better as far as the Catholic Church was concerned. Twenty years of Protestant rule, and the shortage of missionary priests in this frontier environment, left the few remnants of Catholicism to survive on their own.
In New Orleans, Father Luis Ignacio Penalver y Cardenas was consecrated Bishop of the new Diocese of Louisiana. This Diocese, established by Pope Pius VI, included both East and West Florida. Although he never visited his Province of Florida, Bishop Penalver did have a major impact in the development of the faith here. In a letter to his pastors, he ordered an annual census to be taken, which resulted in a more organized propagation of faith.
Stephen R. Mallory, an Episcopalian, and his Catholic wife, Ellen, settled in Key West, and soon after, a small Catholic community formed around the Mallory family. Stephen Mallory died shortly after their arrival and his widow raised their son, Stephen Russell Mallory, in the Catholic faith. Young Stephen was educated at Spring Hill College and served later as a U.S. Senator from Florida, and then during the Civil War, as Secretary of the Navy in the Confederacy. He was one of the more prominent Catholic laymen in the U.S. at that time, and his name is memorialized in a public square near the pier, at the northwest end of the island.
During the last days of the Confederacy in the 1860s, Mallory was arrested and imprisoned at Ft. Lafayette, New York. During this time he underwent a spiritual transformation, which is recorded in his diary. He began and ended each day in prayer, asking the protection of God, the Blessed Mother, and the angels over his wife and four children. The following excerpt, taken from a letter written to his son Buddy, then a student at Georgetown College, reflects the fruits of his Catholic upbringing:
On May 6 at the urging of the Bishop of Mobile Michael Portier , Pope Pius VIII elevated the Vicariate of Florida and Alabama to the dignity of a diocese. The Catholic population of Florida was numbered at that time to be about 4,000.
Bishop Portier placed the Parish of St. Augustine and the missions of East Florida in charge of two French Fathers of Mercy, the Rev. Benedict Madeore and Rev. Edmond Aubril. The Catholic population in Key West was estimated at perhaps 15 families, numbering not more than 100 from the baptismal, marriage, and funeral registers of that year.
On October 10th, the first recorded Mass was said to have been celebrated in Key West by a visiting Havana priest. It took place on the second floor of city hall, a two story building, at the foot of Duval Street. The continuing buildup of federal military installations on the island steadily increased the number of Catholics. By 1847 it was clear that the Catholic residents were in dire need of a church and a priest. Aware of the island’s needs, Bishop Portier sent Father J. A. Corcoran, a newly ordained Irish priest, to Key West, where he remained for several years.
Under the direction of Pope Pius IX, the State of Florida, East of the Apalachicola River, was transferred from the Diocese of Mobile to the newly formed Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, under Bishop Francis X. Gartland. Shortly thereafter, the Bishop’s attention was also drawn to the growing Catholic community of our island. Responding to the Parish’s request, he sent Father John F. Kirby to Key West from Savannah.
History from 1851-1900
Father Kirby immediately set about constructing the first Catholic Church in Key West on the corner of Duval and Eaton Street. This would be the fifth Catholic Church erected in all of Florida and the first and foremost in South Florida. Amid great ceremony and with solemn decorum, the Church was dedicated on the 26 of February, 1852, by the Bishop Garland. The established boundaries of the Parish being bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, it was dedicated under the title of “Saint Mary Star of the Sea.”
A tower with a small bell was erected on the Church ground; and throughout the island city, persons of all faiths listened regularly for the mellow sound of the Angelus, which was rung three times daily.
An outbreak of yellow fever took its toll on the priests who arrived to continue the work of the parish. As fast as one came, he was stricken and another came to take his place only to succumb to the dreadful fever.
Pope Pius IX created the Vicariate Apostolic of Florida in January and named Augustin Verot the Vicar. As a Vicariate, Florida was separated from the Diocese of Savannah and given a more or less independent character, although it remained a missionary district under the final supervision of the Congregation of the Propagation of Faith. When Bishop Verot arrived in Florida, he found existent three parishes (of which one was in South Florida, Key West’s Saint Mary Star of the Sea), seven mission chapels, no schools, no convents, and no ecclesiastical social service institutions. He had three priests: two Frenchmen of the Society of Mercy and an Irish diocesan priest.
Fathers J. J. Cabanilla, Marius Cavalieri, and Felix Ciampi, who belonged to the Society of Jesus, officiated at Key West in the absence of a pastor. They were probably only visiting priests or here on a special mission, as Father Ciampi was a renowned preacher in Philadelphia at that time. The Jesuits of Cuba had also been invited to attend Key West monthly during the vacancy.
A landmark year for the church in South Florida, when, at the request of Bishop Verot, five Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary from Montreal, Canada were sent to Key West by their superior to Key West to open a school for girls and to form a convent. It was to be the first Catholic School begun, and is the longest running Catholic School, in the State of Florida with a long and rich history that merits consideration.
The first School was opened in an abandoned army barracks on the outskirts of town. The sisters’ works prospered and, in 1874, they purchased the present site of the School for $1000. The eight-acre tract of land was cleared and a magnificent conch style school building, considered the handsomest educational building in the State of Florida, was erected and called the Convent of Mary Immaculate. The Convent of Mary Immaculate, later renamed Mary Immaculate High School, was open from 1886 to 1986. St. Francis Xavier School for blacks was open from 1872 to 1961.
St. Joseph School for boys was open from 1880 to 1961, and a school for Cuban girls ran from 1873 to 1878. (In the 1960s when racial segregation was no longer imposed on the Nation, all of the schools were able to be merged into one School. Indeed, all of the students had in fact been taught the same curriculum with many of the same faculty members but in separate buildings to correspond to the laws of the State and Nation.)
Following up on Bishop Verot’s suggestion of five years earlier, Pope Pius IX, established the Diocese of St. Augustine on March 11, 1870, with the Bishop Verot as its first Ordinary.
On January 14, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary began the construction of the Convent of Mary Immaculate, a building of native coral rock, the main part of which cost around $35,000. To save money for building costs, the Sisters would work on the grounds themselves during their leisure hours. The architect for the convent was an Irishman by the name of William Kerr.
There were so many Cubans in Key West seeking freedom from Spanish rule, that a Cuban chapel dedicated to La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre was erected for them on Duval Street, between Division Street (Truman Avenue) and Virginia Street. The chapel was popular as long as there were priests available to staff it, but by 1898 it was closed. It was moved later to its present position on the grounds of the Church and was used as the Parish hall. It is presently used as the Parish Gift Shop.
Father Ronald B. MacDonald, S.J. arrived as an assistant to the Pastor Father Felix Ghione. Since native vocations were so rare, Bishop Moore had to recruit seminarians from Ireland. Bishop Moore then reintroduced the Jesuits from New Orleans to Florida after an absence of 146 years. In 1898, he invited them to take over the parishes and missions of South Florida. Bishop Moore and Rev. James O’Shanahan, the New Orleans Provincial of the Jesuits, signed an agreement to this effect on July 31, 1889.
This extraordinary document gave the Jesuits “exclusive and perpetual rights” to the missionary territory. Since this agreement was so unusual, the Vatican authorities were reluctant to approve it. The only place not offered to the Jesuits was Key West, where the Italian Diocesan Pastor, Father Felix Ghione, was canonically irremovable until he wished to leave. Not long afterwards, Father Ghione, who was in Italy, advised Bishop Moore that he would not return to Key West. Because the diocesan priests seemed unable to serve the 10,000 Cubans in Key West and Tampa, a second contract, signed by Bishop Moore and Rev. O’Shanahan in 1891 mentioned the takeover of Key West “In Perpetuum”. Only the most extraordinary circumstances would have driven Bishop Moore to sign such an agreement. Between 1873 and 1879 the whole southern United States had been hit by epidemics of cholera and yellow fever. Many priests died leaving the church in a dire state. This agreement, though well intentioned, was unworkable from the start. Thirty years later Bishop Michael J. Curley, would have to clarify the situation. The first Jesuit, Rev. Anthony B. Friend, S.J., the new pastor, arrived in Key West February 15, 1898.
Graduation exercises for the class of 1898 of the Convent of Mary Immaculate were being held in the San Carlos Opera House that night of February 15, 1898, when word was received here of the sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba. This event ignited the Spanish American War, which was to last less than four months and bring an end to the Spanish rule in Cuba. For the next two weeks, many of the Maine’s victims, injured and dead, were being returned to Key West. They filled the antiquated Navy Marine Hospital and the Barracks Hospital at the Army Post. Mother Mary Florentine, the Superior of the convent, approached Commander James M. Forsyth, and placed the Convent of Mary Immaculate, two school buildings, and the Sisters’ personal services as nurses, at the disposition of the naval authorities.
Admiral W. T. Sampson accepted her offer and on April 21st, Dr. W. R. Hall of the Navy arrived on the flagship U.S.S. New York to transform the Convent into a hospital. The elegant parlor became a drug store. The spacious classrooms of the first floor were converted into wards for the wounded. The second floor was established as the operating rooms. Major Hall had a staff of nine doctors. Including the two schools, the first floor of the convent and emergency tents, there was a five hundred bed capacity. All of the normal convent furniture and property were stored in two outside buildings on the grounds.
The Convent was now called the Key West Convent Hospital. Twenty officers and 306 wounded men were brought to the hospital. The chaplain of the Battleship Maine, was also among the first patients in the Key West Convent Hospital. On recovery, he celebrated Mass in the hospital chapel, using the chalice given him by the crew of the Maine, which had just been recovered and returned to him. A total of over six hundred wounded were treated during the course of the war at the Convent Hospital.
History from 1901-1950
On the 20th of September, the Church that was erected in 1852 by Father Kirby, on the lot on the southwest side of Duval Street, between Eaton and Fleming Streets, was destroyed by fire with evidence of arson. The Catholic Mass thereafter was said in the Convent music hall, one of the buildings put up on the convent grounds by the U.S. Government for the hospital during the Spanish-American War.
Although many valuable objects were rescued from the Church before the fire forced the men out, much was lost. From the debris of the fire were salvaged a few candlesticks and Stations of the Cross, all badly burned. One exception was a crudely painted plaque depicting the Virgin Mary as Star of the Sea with the following inscription from the homily given at the dedication of the Church on February 26, 1851 by Father Sylvanius Hunineq:
Photo by Tom Oosterhoudt
Construction of the present Saint Mary Star of the Sea Church began on February 2, 1904 as is indicated by the corner stone near the front doors of the Church:
Photo by Tom Oosterhoudt
Photo by Tom Oosterhoudt
The Church’s exterior design represents the eclectic period of American Victorian Architecture and is reminiscent of a modified early renaissance revival building with rusticated exterior walls, round arches, and lunettes filled with transitional gothic arches, louvered shutters and colored glass windows. The stone blocks that went into its construction are in fact poured concrete made from the oolitic limestone dug from the ground on which the Church stands. It became the first non-wooden place of Catholic worship in South Florida. The exterior architecture is similar to Leone Battista Alberti’s San Francesco Church in Rimini, Italy.
Photo by Tom Oosterhoudt
Photo by Tom Oosterhoudt
The interior of the Church inspires one with its clarity and height and represents the eclectic period of American Victorian Architecture. Many elements of the interior have both Romanesque and early Renaissance characteristics reminiscent of Filippo Brunelleschi’s Santo Spirito Church in Florence.
The nave ceiling is a simple flat barrel vault decorated with rare pressed metal panels. The ceiling is supported on an arcade of round headed arches and tall thin cast iron columns with Romanesque capitals. Most of the interior walls and ceilings of the nave and side aisles are painted in off- white and white. Very selective decorative elements are gilded, which emphasizes the height of the columns and ceilings. The natural light playing through the colored glass arches on both sides of the nave add special significance to the stained glass window over the altar.
Particular care was taken to make the Church comfortable and cool in this sub-tropical climate. For this purpose, six of the nine exterior bays are defined by paired shutters and doors with colored, arched glass windows. These high and wide doorways were set along the east and west walls instead of windows to provide refreshing cross ventilation in the nave. In Key West, we have the ability to leave these doors open throughout the year due to the pleasant climate. Providentially, these open doors also provide more space for the faithful to gather during the busy winter and spring tourist seasons.
Though there are devotional statues and images throughout the Church, and nature blazes with glory through the open doors, the clarity of the lighting and integrity of the furnishing compels the pilgrim’s eye to move forward to the altar of sacrifice, then, up to the stained glass image of Stella Maris and finally, up to the heavens in transcendence.
The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary enlarged the convent of Mary Immaculate to nearly twice its original size by adding the northeast wing, at a cost of $22,000.
The decorative steeple was erected on the addition to bring a balance in design between the old and the new. Considered the handsomest educational building in the State of Florida, it was truly a monument to the devotion and heroism of the good women who founded and maintained it.
Fr. Friend’s desire for a stained glass window of Saint Mary Star of the Sea was realized by the collaborative work of Br. Otten with the Franz Mayer Company in Munich, Germany, with offices in New York. A group of parish men, referred to as the Knights of Columbus took it upon themselves to raise the money necessary for the stained glass window. The magnificent stained glass window is the focal centerpiece of this Church. A second ceremony to bless the stained glass window and to reaffirm the first dedication of the Church was held on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1907 and presided over by Bishop Kenny.
On September 8, the worst storm in the history of the island occurred. The hurricane raged for 17 hours. The force of the wind was such that the wind gage of the government broke while the velocity was 98 miles an hour. The observer estimated, and this was likewise the opinion of the old-timers here, that it went considerably over 110 mph at times. Over 400 lives were lost due to this storm. The Schools were badly damaged, and the Church injured, and the Convent building unroofed. The city suffered severe damage as well.
On a bright sunny day May 25, the Feast of the Ascension and the 25th anniversary of Sister Louis Gabriel’s entrance into the religious profession of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, the Grotto containing the statues of Our Lady of Lourdes and Bernadette were dedicated.
Designed and built under the direction of Sister Louis Gabriel, contributions that came from her many friends in the community made the construction possible. Tradition tells us that Sister Louis Gabriel is said to have remarked that day, that as long as the Grotto stood, “Key West would never experience the full brunt of a hurricane.” Sister Gabriel had survived three major storms since her arrival in Key West on August 25, 1897, just three weeks after taking her vows. Because of the devastation and heartache she had witnessed as a result of these terrible storms, she had a deep desire to keep Key West and its residents safe from future storms, which generated her passion to build the Grotto to seek protection from Our Blessed Mother Mary. As all residents can attest, there has not been a severe storm on the island since the erection of the Grotto in 1922. She died peacefully on September 13, 1948, a good and faithful servant to the Lord and her community. Monsignor William Barry of St. Patrick’s Church in Miami gave her eulogy stating among other honors and praises that she had served as a “lamp of faith” to this community for fifty one years. She is buried in the Sisters’ cemetery on the Parish grounds.
History from 1951-Present
The rapid growth of South Florida since the 1940s overtaxed the abilities of the Diocese of St. Augustine resulting in the creation of a new diocese comprising the 16 counties of South Florida. In 1958, Bishop Coleman F. Carroll, was installed as the first Ordinary of the Diocese of Miami.
After seventy-two years of devoted service to the people of Key West, the Jesuits turned over the Parish of St. Mary Star of the Sea to the Archdiocese of Miami. Father John Q. Minvielle turned over the Parish to Father Charles Zinn, the previous chancellor of the Archdiocese. Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll of the Archdiocese of Miami presided over the formalities of the change of jurisdiction.
After 115 years, the services of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Key West came to an end. With regrets to the community of Key West, Sister Virginia Dunn, S.N.J.M. the Provincial Director, announced that due to staffing problems, the Sisters of the Holy Names would not be able to continue their mission on the island. This was a sad blow to the good people of St. Mary’s Parish and Key West. The Sisters were always held in the highest esteem and loved dearly by people of all faiths on the island.
Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy ordained Key West resident Kirby McClain as the first permanent Deacon at Saint Mary Star of the Sea Church on May 4.
The High School was closed due to declining enrollment and financial insolvency. Although there were many signs that this was going to happen in the previous five years, nevertheless the actuality was still a shock to the Parish. June 1986 saw the last graduating class of Mary Immaculate High School. Saint Mary’s School was then moved into the old high school facilities and renamed Mary Immaculate Star of the Sea School.
The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary burial grounds on the convent property were moved for the second and last time. The remains of the 18 nuns, which had been buried in an isolated corner of the property, moved to a beautiful new area next to the Grotto.
After a major restoration of the Church building which began in 1987 with the guidance of a historic architect, Archbishop McCarthy consecrated the new altar and blessed the new furnishings on December 17th. Saint Mary Star of the Sea Church was declared and listed as a National and State Historical Site. Restored to its inherent beauty, the Church building facilitated the renewed stewardship of the parishioners.
The old Convent Chapel was restored as the Chapel of Divine Mercy on September 8th. Perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament began.
On November 18, Peter H. Batty of Key West was ordained a deacon by Archbishop John C. Favalora in Saint Mary Cathedral, Miami. Deacon Peter Batty, baptized in the Church of England in Salisbury, had entered the full Communion of the Catholic Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in 1993, which he now directs.
A rock garden behind the Convent and Renewal Center was transformed into a Stations of the Cross Garden, which was blessed by Bishop Felipe Estevez, Auxiliary Bishop of Miami, on December 12, 2004. The Stations are constructed of carrera marble with mosaics of the scene for each station, all framed in bronze, illuminated with night lights, and placed within a tropical garden.
Saint Mary Star of the Sea Outreach Mission was blessed by the Most Reverend Felipe Estevez, Auxiliary Bishop of Archdiocese of Miami.
On June 1, Archbishop Thomas Wenski was installed as the fourth Archbishop of Miami. Archbishop Wenski, the first native to serve as the Ordinary, celebrated a Mass of Welcome at Saint Mary Star of the Sea Church on June 8, 2010.