History of the Parish
1901: 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:
“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.”
Fr. Friend started a fund drive to build a new Church building. It was Fr. Friend’s desire to have a likeness of the recovered painting duplicated in stained glass as the centerpiece of the Church building. However, a shortfall in funds and an underestimation of the cost of this stained glass masterpiece required a substitute window similar in likeness to the side glass windows.
1904: 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:
In Honorem Sanctae Mariae Stellae Maris
Dicatvm Opvs Inceptvm Die 2 Feb. MCMIV
Photo by Tom Oosterhoudt
This new Church was needed because the original wooden Saint Mary Star of the Sea Church was destroyed by fire with evidence of arson on September 20, 1901. With wide community support, the construction was completed, the Church was dedicated, and the altar consecrated on August 20, 1905, by the Most Rev. W. J. Kenny, D.D., Bishop of Saint Augustine. The architect was Brother Cornelius Otten, S.J. Originally from Holland, Brother Otten was instrumental in the design and construction of many Churches served by the Jesuits of the New Orleans Province throughout the South East United States. Saint Mary Star of the Sea Church was under the Province’s jurisdiction at that time. The expert economizing labor of Brother Otten, the builder and architect, reduced construction costs to $24,444.
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
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.
Photo by Tom Oosterhoudt
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.
1904: 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.
1907: 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.
1919: 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.
1922: 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.