(From an article written by parishioner Keith Woods on the occasion of the St. Joseph’s Church Jubilee year in 2001)
Through its 85-year history, St. Joseph’s church has evolved, adjusted, struggled with social upheaval and provoked social activism. Now, having recently celebrated its Jubilee year, the ever-resurgent parish with its multicultural following stands as one of the most unique Catholic congregations in Tampa Bay.
The church’s beginnings are humble enough. Born as a mission of St. Mary’s church, St. Joseph’s got its start in 1922 when St. Mary’s Pastor Father James J. O’Riordan bought the land on St. Petersburg’s south side. The mission was constructed four years later and reached parish status in 1930, with Fr. Michael J. Clasby serving as the first pastor and Fr. John H. Mullins as his successor.
In 1952, the parish opened its school on the site now housing the Immaculate Conception Early Childhood Development Center. Under the direction of the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine, the school, for white children only at the time, was the first Catholic school in St. Petersburg. For most of its existence, St. Joseph’s school served children from kindergarten through 8th grade. It would remain open until dwindling enrollment closed its doors in 1985.
As the Catholic church expanded to meet the needs of the city’s growing population, the Immaculate Conception Mission was established near where Tropicana Field now stands. It began with two nuns who would minister to a handful of black families who had no church and no priest. From 1945 to 1948, the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y., who resided at St. Paul’s convent, taught the children catechism and led them through the Sacraments of Baptism, Holy Communion and Confirmation, circumventing racial segregation by slipping them into all-white St. Paul’s church for Christmas Mass and Confirmation.
In 1948, the late Father John Murphy, pastor of St. Joseph’s for almost 30 years beginning in 1941, assumed oversight of the Mission, housed in an old cow barn on the corner of 16th Street and 9th Avenue S. Four years later, the Franciscan Sisters opened the Immaculate Conception school, which began with a kindergarten class of three.
The two congregations were separated by fewer than two miles, but there was a huge social gulf between them and a divine fate uniting them. St. Joseph’s served the area’s white Catholics. The Immaculate Conception Mission served the city’s black Catholics. Racism created the segregation. Culture and habit kept it going. It went on that way well into the 1980s, when the inexorable forces of time, financial need and profound demographic shifts would fuse the two parishes together forever.
Before that would happen, the church would add the parish hall – a small adjacent building that parish leaders bought for $80.50 nearly 70 years ago. Like St. Mary’s before it, St. Joseph’s would undergird a budding parish, opening a mission on St. Petersburg beach that would eventually become St. John’s. Property for the old rectory across the street from St. Joseph’s was purchased in 1938. Construction on the convent, now the parish rectory, began in 1951.
The church building had undergone its most pronounced facelift by the 1960s, including the addition of the steeple and bells, which caused its share of controversy in the surrounding neighborhood. By 1964, the parish had almost doubled its original size, growing to 325 families. It would need the strength of those numbers to withstand the foundation-shaking changes still to come.
When Fr. Murphy retired in 1968, the parish was commissioned to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who sent a succession of priests to lead St. Joseph’s, beginning with Fr. Thomas McGrady, from 1968-1070; Fr. Edwin Hayes, OMI, from 1970-1975, and Fr. John Hanley, OMI, from 1975-1980.
OMI priest Fr. Joseph Farraioli’s first assignment was to St. Joseph’s in 1977, when he joined Fr. Hanley as Associate Pastor. The school was foundering as enrollment dropped. The neighborhood, once white and mostly Catholic, was now mostly black and Protestant. “The white flight phenomenon had occurred,” Fr. Farraioli said. “There was nobody to take their places. We were not well-connected to our community.” Sometimes, he said, it felt like the church was holding together with “baling wire and Band-Aids.” It’s a time he remembers fondly, he said, mainly because of the commitment St. Joseph’s parishioners showed to their church. Fr. Farraioli is now pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in New Orleans.
Fr. Roland Bennett was part of a three-man team ministry that arrived in 1980. For his first two years, he combined with Fr. Leonard Sudlick and Fr. Michael Miner to lead the parish. Fr. Bennett became pastor in 1982 and stayed through one of the parish’s most tumultuous times. The church went through another renovation. St. Joseph’s would see the altar moved closer to the congregation, the altar rail removed, the Baptismal constructed and the church painted and carpeted. The pews were replaced with chairs. The church bought 400 chairs, but put up only 300. “We didn’t want the people to move too far back in the church,” Fr. Bennett said with a laugh.
More serious matters pressed on, however. The school was draining resources. The church population was dying or moving away or running away from integration. The Immaculate Conception Mission building was in such poor shape that renovation was hardly an option. While Fr. Bennett was a co-pastor, St. Joseph’s school was closed, and from the shuffling of students that followed was born the Immaculate Conception Early Childhood Development Center. In the early 1980s, the two church congregations were merged, which pleased some and infuriated others. “The thing that saved us was the good will on the part of both parishes,” said Fr. Bennett, now assistant pastor at St. Francis of Assisi church in Riviera Beach, FL.
That good will was tested again in 1988 when Fr. Bill Mason arrived from Miami’s St. Francis Xavier. He had been pastor of a church so much in the center of Miami’s racial unrest in the early 1980s that he once had to walk through a line of National Guardsmen to get to Mass after riots engulfed the Overtown section of the city. He brought with him to St. Joseph’s an appreciation for a liturgy with African influences and a vision for the church’s role in struggling communities.
He hired a musical director and made room for a Gospel choir. He opened the altar to the voices of women and gave black congregants the power and pulpit to express their spirituality. He instituted the annual revival and the tradition of bringing black priests and black choirs to St. Joseph’s for three days of deep immersion into what he called the “black style of spirituality.” That change, like others before it, provoked a small rebellion.
“They voted with their feet,” Fr. Mason said. “Some left. But people came, too. They were attracted to the lively way Mass was celebrated.”
As the church traveled toward the end of the millennium, it would do more than change on the inside. It would dare the community to change, too. With enormous backing from a unified St. Joseph’s congregation, CUCA – Congregations United for Community Action – was launched. The church-based grassroots activism group would march against illicit drug use and governmental neglect while marching in favor of racial and religious reconciliation. Fr. Mason, one of the earliest co-leaders of CUCA, remembers one meeting that seemed to capture St. Joseph’s role in getting the group off the ground. “We’d had a huge meeting at the Church of God in Christ,” he said. “At the end of the meeting, they would usually have people from each church stand up. When they called St. Joseph’s, there were so many of us that we overwhelmed even the home parish.”
The Oblates, short on priests, pulled out of St. Petersburg in 1994. Fr. Mason, who now travels the country preaching at revivals like the one he brought to St. Joseph’s, is part of the Oblates’ preaching team based in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Before he left St. Joseph’s, Fr. Mason helped prepare his successor, Fr. Arthur Proulx, for the unique congregation he would inherit. Fr. Proulx, then the Director of Vocations for the diocese, was familiar with the liturgical spirit at St. Joseph’s, having visited the parish in the past. He said he came to St. Joseph’s hoping to “build on the pastor ahead of me and move the community along.” To gear up for that task, he accompanied Fr. Mason to a gathering of black Catholics in Las Vegas that Fr. Proulx said was equal parts education and inspiration. The annual workshop focuses on pastoring to a black congregation. “It fired me up,” Fr. Proulx said. “I got the theory and passion behind the liturgy by going to that workshop.”
Fr. Proulx helped carry forward the work with CUCA begun by Fr. Mason. In what was one of CUCA’s finest hours, Fr. Proulx presided over a march in 1996 that began on the front steps of St. Joseph’s and proceeded to Lakeview Park, which had been overrun by weeds, garbage and the trappings of the illegal drug trade. United with congregations from throughout the community, St. Joseph’s led more than 100 marchers carrying banners, bullhorns and candles to the once-picturesque park. There, they held a prayer vigil and began to pressure city leaders until the park was cleaned, playground equipment was updated, and the park was returned to the neighborhood’s children and their families. “It was a great event,” Fr. Proulx said. “It really brought about some action. It really did work.”
While he fought the regular battles against the aging church’s leaks and creaks, Fr. Proulx said he concentrated most on making the Sunday Mass the centerpiece of the church’s activities. During his stay, he closed the final chapter in the history of the Immaculate Conception Mission when he oversaw the sale of the 16th Street land to the city so that the new John Hopkins Middle School could be completed.
St. Joseph’s, already a rare, multicultural church, grew more unique early in Fr. Proulx’s tenure. The Martyrs of Vietnam, a burgeoning Vietnamese Catholic congregation, had outgrown the tiny chapel at St. Petersburg Catholic High School in 1994 and needed a new home. With the blessing of the pastoral council, Fr. Proulx settled the group in at St. Joseph’s. It is a source of pride, he said, that St. Joseph’s has developed into such a multicultural, multidimensional parish. “There are real caring people there,” he said. “It’s more than just an acceptance of difference. The people have really worked together to integrate their community.” Fr. Proulx left in 1997 to study at the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the North American College in Rome. He is now pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Largo.
With the Year 2000 renewal just around the corner, St. Joseph’s went through yet one more transition. Father Callist Nyambo, a Tanzanian priest and former director of the diocese’s Office of Black Catholic Ministry, left Tampa’s St. Peter Claver to become the church’s first black priest. Fr. Nyambo was not a stranger. He had visited St. Joseph’s in 1982 between getting his theology degree at the University of California at Berkley and getting a master’s in religious education at Catholic University. Substituting for St. Joseph’s co-pastors, Fr. Nyambo said Mass at both St. Joseph’s and Immaculate Conception. He saw the problems – and the promise – of the parish back then.
His return in 1997, like so many of the changes at St. Joseph’s through the years, prompted some people to leave. Attendance waned. “There was a time when people thought the church had been closed, or they didn’t know the church was still functioning,” Fr. Nyambo said. That didn’t last long. Described by one St. Peter Claver parishioner as a “very spiritual person,” Fr. Nyambo arrived with a “can-do” attitude and a list of things he wanted done.
With the generous help of donors who contributed tens of thousands of dollars and parishioners who gave untold hours of service time, the church and its environs got a breath of new life. The chronically broken air-conditioning and heating system was replaced. The roof, whose leaks confounded contractors for years, was pulled off and replaced. The sound system, so quirky that it sometimes broadcast errant radio music from church speakers in the middle of Sunday Mass, was overhauled.
The parish hall, once a military barracks, was set upon by talented church members who refinished the floors, fixed the roof and ceiling, upgraded the walls, turned a storage room into a meeting room and gave the old building a new shine. The parking lot was re-striped. The grounds were landscaped, and a sign proclaiming the church’s name was added. Still ahead: raise money for a larger parish hall.
“I feel like, by the grace of God, you and I have done our share,” Fr. Nyambo said.
He counted the Jubilee, a celebration of the church’s history and, soon, a meaningful part of that history, as a significant moment in his tenure as pastor.
“It’s a crossroads for the church,” he said. “It’s a great moment because it’s a time to see from whence we came and where we’re going.”