History of the Parish
1851: 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.”
1852-1853: 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.
1850-1860: 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.
1857: 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.
1858-59: 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.
1868: 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.)
1870: 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.
1875: 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.
1879: 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.
1887: 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.
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.