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Prior to the beginning of the last century there were very few Catholics in Lakeland, or in Polk County. It is stated that Mrs. J. Elliston held the first Mass in her home at the corner of Lemon Street and South Kentucky Avenue in 1892. Masses were held in the homes of the faithful in this small Catholic community including the homes of Mrs. Elliston and Mrs. M. J. Malloy, who lived at Munn Park, and occasionally services were held in this building’s small hall on the second floor. Services were held this way for 16 years before a church was erected.

After Mrs. Malloy donated a well-located building site for a parish church, the plans were putinto place to build one. Early in 1905, Father Firman Ybarra, an enthusiastic and devoted Mexican Jesuit priest, guided active efforts, which raised sufficient funds to build a small house of worship. On April 8th, 1906, Mass was heard in an unpretentious building at Missouri Avenue and Lemon Street, with Father Ybarra officiating.

Humble Beginnings

Catholics in Lakeland welcomed their first pastor on December 15, 1920.  Father Michael J. Farley worked tirelessly for 13 years. The lot adjoining the one donated by Mrs. Malloy was acquired in 1922 and the two-story rectory was built and used for more than 70 years.

Many parishioners looked forward to Father Farley’s informal visits around the neighborhood. The tragic death of this faithful servant of Christ on December 27, 1933 shocked all of Lakeland.

On February 1, 1934, Father Patrick E. Nolan was appointed pastor. Through a legacy left by Mrs. Malloy, a parish hall was opened in November of that year.

Growing Together

The need for a larger church building had been growing for some time. Through donations of parishioners and friends, the new church building was built without much financial burden. On April 26, 1936, ground was broken for the new building. The last service was held in the original building on September 13, 1936.

The first services in the present church were held September 20, 1936. The Romanesque structure was built to defy the elements and effects of time. Built of brick manufactured in Brooksville, iron and concrete, the building is 90% fireproof. Inside the nave seats 500 people easily and comfortably. The main altar, produced by Arrighini Studios at Pietrasanta, Italy, is composed of various marbles of finest quality, matched in an exquisite work of art. On this altar rich mosaics are displayed. The Calvary group, which was originally mounted over the central Tabernacle, was an artistic multi-marble composite in which detail, proportion and expression were perfect. The corpus on the cross was particularly admired. This grouping was changed when the altar was turned around to face the congregation.

Two side altars, flanking the main altar, conform in style and choice of marbles. The statues are said to be the first of their kind in the United States. On the left side is the altar of St. Joseph, patron and titular of the parish. On the right side is the beautiful altar of the Blessed Mother.

Fourteen high-relief marble Stations of the Cross, depicting Christ’s sorrowful journey to Mount Calvary, are carved in fine ivory-colored marble and set into niches along the side walls, about ten feet above the floor. If St. Joseph’s had no other art treasures, these Stations alone would make it a must-stop for lovers and admirers of sacred art. The inlaid marble baptismal font imported from Italy is a veritable museum piece.

At the first service, only four of the nine large windows of the church had been paneled with stained-glass art. The four beautiful imported windows initially installed depict scenes from the childhood, or private life, of Christ. The remaining five windows depicting the adult, or public life, of Christ were installed later.

Adjoining St. Joseph Church, the beautiful Chapel of Our Lady featured a Lourdes Grotto.  Many candles burned daily in silent supplication before the popular shrine.  Also in the chapel are statues of the Holy Family, the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Virgin,  the Infant of Prague and the Virgin of  Caridad Patron Saint of Cuba.

Art works and decorations in the church were completed in 1939-1940. Solemn dedication by Bishop Parry took place January 17, 1937.

St. Joseph Academy Beginnings

Through a real estate transaction, William P. McDonald acquired the old Morrell City Hospital and donated it to the parish in June 1938. It was converted into a parish school, which was named St. Joseph’s Academy. The top floor was arranged into living quarters for Sisters of St. Francis, the teaching staff.

Msgr. Patrick J. McGill was in charge of the parish when Father Nolan joined the Chaplain Corps during World War II. During the war years the Parish Hall was used as a U.S.O. center, and many servicemen were entertained there. Mrs. Sarah Murrell spearheaded the activities at the U.S.O. canteen. The Parish Hall was also used as a meeting place for other groups, such as the Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops which were organized for the first time in 1944.

After the war, Father Nolan returned to St. Joseph’s for a short time and was then transferred to a parish in Jacksonville. Msgr. McGill succeeded Father Nolan as pastor. Under his direction a new school building was erected in 1954 on West Orange Street, housing five classrooms, a library, first aid clinic, storage rooms, and offices. When this building was completed, grades one through five took their respective classrooms; seventh and eighth grades remained in the old building in individual rooms, and the sixth grade was moved to the Parish Hall, one-half block from the school facility. The Sisters moved out of the old building in 1964 into their own convent diagonally across the street from the school.

After Msgr. McGill’s death in 1956, the assistant pastor, Father Bryan O. Walsh, was named administrator until Father William A. O’Farrell was appointed pastor. His service was short-lived however, as he died in December of 1959.

Since Santa Fe High School opened its doors in 1960, the school, the priests and people of St. Joseph’s parish have always had a close working relationship. It has served as a secondary level of education for over 40 years for both our Catholic young people and hundreds of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters.

Father William J. O’Farrell was appointed pastor in 1961. In the time of his pastorate the church in central Florida, including St. Joseph, saw significant expansion. During his tenure, St. Joseph Parish was especially present to the poor and the migrants.

Msgr. Martin B. Power was appointed pastor in June of 1969 when Father O’Farrell was transferred to Port Orange, Florida. Msgr. Power died suddenly on March 22, 1972, and Father Patrick J. O’Carroll served as pastor from then until 1973.

Father Patrick Sheedy was appointed pastor on February 7, 1974, having served as assistant pastor since 1968. Under his direction outreach to the poor continued to expand. The St. Vincent de Paul Society was re-established in 1975 headed by Deacon Marvin Busing. The presence of the church to correctional institutions in Polk County increased under the leadership of Deacon Joseph McCabe. Several outreach ministries were birthed from St. Joseph Parish. The Preg-Aid office began under the leadership of Patricia Buckler, and has now grown to become the Pregnancy Help Center. Talbot House, under the direction of St. Vincent de Paul and Catholic Social Services headed by Father Pat Sheedy, Deacon Marvin Busing, and Edward Kren has now matured to become a new facility, Talbot House Inc., offering broadbased support to the needy and homeless.

The school of Religious Education, which was reorganized under the guidance of Dolores Linsler, includes sacramental preparation at all stages of development.

Under the leadership of the current pastor John P. Caulfield who was appointed in 1984, we had the 50th anniversary of the school. This celebration marked the end of an era of stellar service of the Sisters of St. Francis. This was also the beginning of the school endowment fund established to ensure that all our children including those in need could attend St. Joseph’s School.

The Sisters of Allegany gave trojan service for fifty years. Then in a pattern of change we saw lay leadership and teachers in the eighties and nineties. As we go into the third millennium our school is under the able leadership of Lana Swartzwelder and her highly qualified staff teaching students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.

Spanish ministry has really grown in in St. Joseph Parish lead by several  Spanish speaking priests to minister to the needs of a very active community.

Father John P. Caulfield was appointed in 1984. Under his leadership, St. Joseph Parish has seen much change, renovation and general preparation for the new millennium. The renovation of our beautiful sixty-year-old church was completed in 1997. A new bell tower was installed along with the renovation project, and this now houses the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Perpetual Adoration is a very special gift to our community. 1998 saw the yearlong anniversary celebration of 100 years of faith. Our school alumni had a memorable reunion, which promises new beginnings. Other events in the 1990s were the following: the 60th anniversary of the school, the initializing of an endowment fund, new lay leadership in the school administration and teaching staff, a brand new pastoral center, a new rectory, additional classrooms, a modern computer technology lab, and a new gymnasium-pavilion.

Our pastor and parish have been active in ecumenical outreach, especially through the interfaith council and the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (P.E.A.C.E.).

Vision for the Future

We have been part of a parish that began by experiencing the end of the industrial revolution and at the heart of the century saw a technological revolution over which hung the specter of suffering and death. At the end of the century, we have seen the communication revolution which has now ushered in the information age along with the globalization of production, business and economics. On the dark side, our community has experienced the Second World War, a significant nuclear threat and the erosion of family and institutional values. But over and against this, we have been blessed by the dramatic renewal of our church through Vatican II.

We believe that the globalization of the last thirty years of this second  millennium will affect a new understanding of the value and power of local community; be it a village, a town or a parish. We also feel that there will be a greater interiorization in our relationship with our God with much more time set aside for meditation, adoration and contemplation on our spiritual life.

Our prayer today is that the parish of St. Joseph, in the next hundred years, will reflect the ever-increasing importance of spirituality, ecumenism, and the strengthening of community and family values as witnessed in the first one hundred years.

Pastors of St. Joseph Catholic Church

Father Michael J. Farley 1920 – 1933
Father Patrick E. Nolan 1934 – 1947
Monsignor Patrick J. McGill 1947 – 1956
Father William A. O’Farrell 1957 – 1959
Father William J. O’Farrell 1961 – 1969
Monsignor Martin B. Power 1969 – 1972
Father Patrick J. O’Carroll 1972 – 1973
Father Patrick J. Sheedy 1974 – 1984
Monsignor John P. Caulfield 1985 – 2012
Father Ramon Bolatete 2012 – 2018
Father Tim LaBo, Ph.D. 2018 – Present