History of the Parish
“Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route…Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to his Kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!” Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi
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.
1566: 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.
1724: 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.
1743: 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.
1763: 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.
1783: 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.
1793: 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.
1820: 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:
“Cling to your religion, my son, as the anchor of life here and to come. Never permit yourself to question its great truths, or mysteries. Faith must save you or nothing can; and faith implies mystery. The rationalist who believes only what he can understand… has led away ardent minds of youth from the days of the Grecian philosophers… He cannot be a Christian. I frankly say to you – and not without regret and humiliation – that I too long neglected this, and that I did not give you the proper example. Learn by my present feeling… to do your duty. Before I left Richmond, I visited the Confessional, made a clean breast of it to Almighty God, and partook of the Bl. Sacrament at Charlotte and at Atlanta. You have ever had the example of your mother, whose noble wife-like devotion I owe my confession and Communion, after years of neglect.”
1829: 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.
1844: 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.
1846: 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.
1850: 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.