The history of Catholicism on the West Coast of Florida goes all the way back to the Spanish explorers of the 1500s and the missionaries they brought with them. Jesuit priests established an outpost in the late 1500s in what later would become Tampa, but circumstances caused it to be abandoned after about three years.
A Catholic Parish in Tampa
In the early 1850s, Hillsborough County commissioners deeded property at Ashley Drive and Twiggs Street for a Catholic church. The property later was exchanged for land at Florida Avenue and Twiggs. In 1859, a little frame church was erected on the site of the present Sacred Heart Church. It was blessed on Trinity Sunday and named St. Louis Parish in honor of King Louis IX of France, a leader in the Crusades, and in memory of Fr. Luis Cancer, a Dominican missionary from Spain who was martyred on the shores of Tampa Bay in 1549. St. Louis parish was officially constituted in February of 1860 with the arrival of Fr. Charles S. Mailley as resident pastor. The 27 year old priest had been recruited in France only a few months earlier.
The parish grew along with Tampa. Anticipating the need for a larger facility, two wings were added to its modest building in 1883, nearly doubling its seating capacity. A dreadful yellow fever epidemic took a heavy toll on the populace in 1887-88. The parish lost three pastors within a year, two of them in rapid succession. Bishop John Moore of the Diocese of St. Augustine had lost nearly a quarter of his priests to the malady and had no one else to send to this beleaguered area.
Jesuit Pastoral Leadership
He turned to the Jesuits of the South, where 63 year old Fr. Philippe de Carriere, S.J. volunteered to take the post. The parish remained under Jesuit auspices from 1888 until 2005.
By 1891, the Jesuit missionaries had assumed the spiritual care of Catholics in most of South Florida. St. Louis parish stretched all the way to Key West, including its former diocesan church of Mary, Star of the Sea. The missionaries who covered this vast area have been credited with establishing at least 30 parishes and countless missions and stations over the next half century.
Sacred Heart Church
Tampa began to boom with the arrival of Henry Plant’s railroad in 1884 and his Tampa Bay Hotel (now the cornerstone of the University of Tampa) in 1891. In 1897, pastor Fr. William Tyrrell, S.J. announced that a new church would be built. Ground was broken for our present church on February 16, 1898. The beautiful new structure was dedicated on January 15, 1905, and its name and that of the parish became Sacred Heart.
The Jesuits built the church - at a cost of $300,000 - and named it Sacred Heart. Today the building looks strikingly similar to the original, which was dedicated and opened January 15, 1905. The Romanesque architecture remains. The exterior is a combination of granite and white marble. Inside, most of the design is just as it was a century ago.
Stained Glass Windows
The church has 70 stained glass windows, but the 17 vertical windows lining the nave, anchoring each side of the transept and rimming the apse, are the most dramatic. All were made in the late 1800s by Franz Mayer Co. of Munich, Germany, which is still in business.
The Resurrection Window on the left side of the transept (the part of the church representing the arms of the cross) is a triptych, with three panels. Like the other major windows at Sacred Heart, it tells a story.
The center panel presents the risen Christ, triumphant over death. He floats over the tomb, carrying a heavenly banner, his right hand raised in a benediction. An angel alights beneath him, gazing at the stunned soldiers who guarded his tomb.
The two smaller panels record incidents preceding this apotheosis, one of the Virgin Mary in blue, with Mary Magdalene and Martha approaching the tomb, and the other of two soldiers fleeing as it opens.
Sacred Heart and Education
The Jesuits have always been scholars with a keen interest in education. As missionary work diminished, their efforts turned more and more toward teaching. What is now Jesuit High School began at St. Louis parish in 1899 in the sacristy of the church. The school was housed on the downtown site until 1956, when its operations were separated from the parish and moved to its present campus on North Himes Avenue. The parish established Sacred Heart Academy in 1931 about a mile and a half north of the church on Florida Avenue. Initially it was an elementary school which expanded to include high school classes until 1975. It was staffed by Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary for 51 years, followed by School Sisters of Notre Dame for the next decade. All administrative and teaching positions are now secular. Currently its scope includes classes for Early Childhood 3 and 4, kindergarten and grades one through eight.
Jesuits began divesting themselves of parish work in Florida in the early 2000s. Just one week after celebrating the 100th anniversary of the dedication of Sacred Heart Church, on January 15, 2005, the announcement came that the Jesuits would be relinquishing their beloved parish.
The transition from Jesuits to Franciscans took place on July 15, 2005 at a Welcome Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert N. Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Fr. Andrew Reitz, O.F.M. was formally installed as the first Franciscan pastor of the parish on January 9, 2006. The parish continues to thrive and grow not only in numbers, but also in the involvement of parishioners in various ministries and organizations.
In February of 2010 and throughout that year, Sacred Heart Parish will proudly celebrate the “Sharing of God’s Love for 150 Years.”
1886 photo of Tampa looking south along Florida Ave. St. Louis Church is located at the top left of the photo
Slide Show - St Louis Cemetary
Fr. Alfred Latiolais, SJ,
A Jesuit missionary to Catholics from Tampa throughout the South Florida area from 1912 until 1929
[St Pete Times photos: