Catholic church, school are feeling quite alive at 75

A welcoming priest and sense of tradition keep a parish flourishing.

Published January 19, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - St. Paul's, which has given its name to a neighborhood and is one of Pinellas County's earliest Catholic parishes, is 75 this year.

For the 1,100-family parish and the Euclid-St. Paul neighborhood surrounding it, there is much to celebrate. The church and its school - the first Catholic school in Pinellas County - are thriving, enjoying an influx of young, active families. The neighborhood has benefited from escalating housing values driven by its proximity to a revived downtown.

On Sunday, more than 1,200 people, old-timers who returned to visit and current parishioners, crammed a tent set up behind the church for a Jubilee Mass, which replaced the five Masses held on a typical weekend.

"When I walked into the tent at 10 a.m., I was just awe-struck and it was just a wonderful, wonderful experience," said the Rev. Robert Gibbons, St. Paul's pastor. "The people were so excited, and it was just a great day for me."

It was a historic day for Mary Jane Johnson, 79, who was baptized at St. Paul's.

"I received every sacrament at St. Paul's. My children did, too," she said.

The mother of eight, grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother of seven started attending St. Paul's School when it was opened by Franciscan nuns in 1930. She met her husband there. She still lives a block from the church, which is at 1800 12th St. N.

Mrs. Johnson said she is pleased to see how the parish has progressed.

"When I was young, it was a lot of old people. Now it's all young. The people have come back. Father Gibbons, he really has gone gung-ho and the inner city has come back. The old homes are selling."

Gibbons, in his ninth year at St. Paul's, is given much of the credit for what is described as a growing, welcoming parish.

"There is something very special about Father Gibbons," Murray Beairsto said. "Not only has he brought a new sense of community into the church, but he also helps you dig deeper into your faith. I feel that I'm a stronger Catholic and I attribute a lot of that to Father Gibbons."

Mrs. Beairsto, executive director of Great Explorations, the children's museum, and her husband, Doug, married at St. Paul's in 1993.

"I chose St. Paul's because there's a lot of diversity and families," she said. "There's no dividing line. Everyone is equal. I wanted my children to be well rounded and exposed to a lot of different things."

The mother of Ben, 8, and Macie, 6, she added that she and her husband were invited to participate in St. Paul's School even before they had children.

"There was never any doubt in my mind that I would send my children there to the school," she said.

Rob and Sue Haddad's children, Katharine, 10, and Andrew, 8, also attend St. Paul's School, which has 325 students from prekindergarten to eighth grade. The parish also operates a preschool for 2-year-olds and is planning to start a program for 1-year-olds and infants.

Mrs. Haddad, whose husband converted to Catholicism a year ago, calls the school "a hidden gem."

Gibbons said the school's history works in its favor.

"The people really feel that they're a part of the wonderful tradition, and that's very attractive. We have children whose grandparents have gone there. Our principal Elizabeth Fulham's father attended the school. She went to the school. It's a multigenerational thing. Her son, Greg, graduated from our eighth grade last year," Gibbons said.

"Another thing that has helped our school has been the renaissance of the center city of St. Petersburg and the renaissance of the neighborhoods around us."

The 10 acres occupied by St. Paul's church and school were bought in 1922. The church was a mission of St. Mary Our Lady of Grace Church in downtown St. Petersburg. St. Paul's first pastor, the Rev. James Enright, was responsible for the church's popular grotto. Enright indicated, said Gibbons in a church bulletin, that the grotto was to be a thanksgiving memorial to the Blessed Mother, for her help since the founding of the parish.

Decades later, the grotto is a place of prayer and solace for parishioners and the neighborhood.

"They come in pairs, in little groups, individuals," Gibbons said.

"I see little children from the neighborhood come and kneel down and say a prayer. In a way, it's the people's shrine. They come and sweep it. They bring flowers. They bring candles. This is a way people can really express their faith in their own way. It's just a place of real peace.

"One interesting thing about the grotto, we have a lot of Vietnamese people who come to St. Paul's. Of course, there's a language barrier there. The grotto speaks to them in a universal language. Vietnamese and Eastern Europeans are especially devoted to the grotto."

The weekend's celebration was part of the parish's ongoing jubilee observations, which began in September. They will conclude with a traditional procession and crowning of Mary as the queen of heaven in May. The parish will also be rededicated.

As he looks ahead, Gibbons said he would like to see the school continue to improve. The parish also plans to start major renovations to the school as soon as financially possible, he said.