It may seem a bit odd to be blogging about something religious in a hard-partying tourist town that is known for its “raffish charm”, as I think I put it somewhere on our new website. But something has happened here that I think is pretty cool. I really love the historic aspect of Key West, and this has to do with that.
Situated right on Truman Ave, aka US1, every tourist accessing Old Town passes by St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church. Its presence -- at once graceful and commanding -- is undeniable.
Since 1846, the church has been the spiritual center of the local Catholic community, bearing witness to the joys and sorrows, rites of passage, celebrations, and mournings of life’s journey of the faithful. It is the oldest Catholic church in South Florida and the second oldest in the state. Its affiliated Mary Immaculate Star of the Sea School, founded in 1868, is Florida’s first Catholic school, educating generations of local children. And it even serves the community at large as a voting station.
Also on the grounds is an interesting feature, the historic Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Legend has it, the grotto has protected the island from hurricanes since its construction in 1922 by Sister Mary Louis Gabriel. Before it was built, 300 Key Westers lost their lives in the hurricane of 1919; since its dedication, Key West has experienced nothing greater than a category 2, and no lives have been lost.
St. Mary’s, in one way or another, touches the entire community, even those not “official members" of its 1300-family congregation. Now, in one of the highest honors bestowed by the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI has designated St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church a minor basilica – one of only 72 in the United States.
The basilica title is bestowed on churches in recognition of their historical and spiritual importance. With the new designation, St. Mary’s joins a small handful of minor basilicas in Florida. There are only four major basilicas, all located in Rome. As part of the change, St. Mary’s will become known by a new name: The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea. The designation ceremony is to take place on May 31.
In its official announcement, the Archdiocese of Miami (comprising Miami-Dade, Broward, and Monroe counties) recognized Key West's penchant for revelry in its statement: "May we not overlook the local pilgrimage from the local people of Key West ... (who) desire to find peace in this place with 283 bars." Too bad that statement came off somewhat condescendingly. Perhaps the diocese is unaware of Key West visitors who balance the party with piety alongside locals at St. Mary’s Mass many a Sunday morning.