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Key West: Catholic Church

Key West: The Old and the New


Early items about the Catholic church are very scarce, as no history of it has been left at Key West. The earliest data is obtained from the baptismal, marriage and funeral registers, which date back something over half a century.

In the early forties Key West was in the diocese of Savannah, Ga., and priests sent by the bishop of that place, came once or twice a year to administer the sacraments. On October 10th, 1846, a priest from Havana celebrated high mass in the city hall, a two-story building erected over the water at the foot of Duval street, the first floor of which was used as a meat and fish market.

Among the earliest priests who officiated at Key West were Rev. Fr. Corcoran about 1847, and Rev. Fr. J. F. Kirby in 1851.

The first Catholic church in Key West was on the southwest side of Duval street, about one hundred feet from the corner of Eaton street. It was dedicated by the Rt. Rev. Bishop Francis Xavier Gartland on the 26th of February, 1852, and the sermon was preached by the Rev. Fr. Hunincq, a Belgian priest. It was called the "Church of St. Mary, Star of the Sea." Since it first shed its light in Key West it has, like a star of the sea to the wandering mariner, been a star of hope and comfort in times of despair and sorrow, and a star of joy to those who have lived in its teachings. The church was repaired and enlarged in 1870, and a large pipe organ installed.

This church had among its early congregation many negroes, some free and some slaves, belonging to Catholic families from St. Augustine. For them was assigned a part of the church separated from the whites. This custom still prevails in this church, which numbers among its members many of the best negro families.

The first to be appointed resident priest was Father J. N. Brozard on November 8, 1852. With him during 1852 was Father Ed. Quigley, and in 1853 Father J. T. O'Neil. In 1854 Father Quigley was pastor, and in 1855 Father Ed. Murphy and Father J. Barry officiated. In 1856 Father Kirby and Father Clemens Prendergast were here administering the sacraments. In 1857 Bishop J. Barry, then bishop of Savannah, accompanied by Father Prendergast and Father Ed. Aubrie (of the society of Priests of Mercy, a Catholic religious order), visited Key West and administered the sacrament of confirmation. In 1858-9 Fathers J. J. Cabanilla, Marius Cavalieri, Felix Ciampi, who belonged to the society of Jesus (Jesuits), officiated at Key West. They were probably only visiting priests or here on a special mission, as Father Ciampi was a renowned Preacher in Philadelphia at that time.

Bishop Augustine Verot was consecrated Vicar Apostolic of St. Augustine, Fla., April 25, 1858; transferred to Savannah in 1861, and appointed First Bishop of St. Augustine, when Key West became part of St. Augustine diocese.

In February, 1860, Father Sylvanus Hunineq came as pastor to Key West. He died that summer of yellow fever, having ministered to many during the epidemic of that year. A marble slab was inserted in the wall of the church to commemorate his life and services to humanity. He was much loved by people of all denominations for the great catholicity of his charity. In the same year Father James Hassan was appointed rector. He was succeeded in 1864 by Father Jos. O'Hara, who was succeeded by Father O'Mailley. From 1867-9 Father J. B. Allard was pastor and Father P. La Rocque was his assistant. Father La Rocque is now bishop of Sherbrook, Canada. Father Allard died in 1874, and in the absence of Father La Rocque, who went to finish his studies, Father A. F. Bernier was in charge. Father Hugon was in charge from 1875 to 1877. From here Father Hugon went to Tallahassee where he has ministered for the last thirty-eight years to a small but devoted, devout and cultured congregation. In that year Father La Rocque returned and had as his assistant Father Fourcard, who died of yellow fever in 1878. In 1879 two Jesuits, Father Avenione and Father Encinosa came from Havana to assist the priest, and they also died of yellow fever. At this time Father Spandenari became assistant to Father La Rocque. From 1880 to 1890 Father Ghione had charge of the church without any assistant, but in the latter year Father Bottolaccio came as his assistant. In 1897 Father Ghione went to Italy and left Father Bottolaccio in charge. Shortly afterwards he advised' Bishop Moore that he would not return to Key West, and the bishop made arrangements with the Jesuit Fathers of New Orleans Province, to take charge of the Key West church. Father A. B. Friend, S. J., arrived in Key West February 15, 1898, where he has since officiated with the exception of a short interval when he was stationed at Miami, during which time, the church was in charge of Rev. Father Schuler.

On the 20th of September, 1901, the church that was erected in 1852 on the lot on the southwest side of Duval street, between Eaton and Fleming streets, was destroyed by fire. From that time until August 20, 1905, the Catholics worshipped in one of the buildings put up on the convent ground by the government, for a hospital during the Spanish-American War.

The new Catholic church is a handsome concrete structure which was begun February 2, 1904, and dedicated August 20, 1905, by the Rt. Rev. W. J. Kenny, D. D., Bishop of St. Augustine. The design and character of construction are the work of Father Friend, to whose energies and ability is the church also indebted for financing its construction. It is situated on the corner of Division street and Windsor Lane, and built of concrete made from the coral rock dug from the lot on which the church is built.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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