The Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg was established on June 17, 1968, with territory taken from the Diocese of St. Augustine and the Diocese of Miami. It is a suffragan see of the Province of Miami along with the Dioceses of St. Augustine, Orlando, Pensacola-Tallahassee, and Venice. Situated on Florida’s west coast, along the Gulf of Mexico, the diocese covers 3,177 square miles in five counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus. The principal cities of the diocese are St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Clearwater. The diocese serves a total population of approximately 2,900,000, of whom over 450,000 are Catholic.
The Church’s presence in this part of Florida stretches back nearly five hundred years to the arrival of the Spanish explorers and the missionaries who accompanied them. After Juan Ponce de Leon’s initial discovery of Florida and Tampa Bay in 1513, explorers over the next several decades such as Panfilo de Narvaez and Hernando de Soto came here, bringing with them priests and religious in the hope of native conversions. The hostility of the native peoples in this area, however, continued to frustrate Spanish missionary and expansionist plans as demonstrated by the martyrdom of Fr. Luis de Cancer on the shores of Tampa Bay in 1549. Fr. Cancer and his two fellow Dominican martyrs are currently being considered for canonization. Spain finally gained a firm foothold on the Florida peninsula with the establishment of the St. Augustine colony in 1565. This prompted another missionary effort to this area that was begun by the Jesuits in 1567, though it was abandoned five years later because of the poor living conditions and the continued hostility of the native tribes. Spanish missionaries then turned their attention to the friendlier tribes of north Florida. The Tampa Bay area remained largely unpopulated until Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821. Shortly thereafter, the Ft. Brooke military garrison was established in what is today downtown Tampa. The founding of St. Louis Catholic Church in Tampa in 1860 provided a focal point for Catholics.
After a serious outbreak of yellow fever in Tampa in 1888 that killed three of the four priests there, Bishop Moore of the Diocese of St. Augustine in desperation turned to the Jesuits from New Orleans for help. Not only did the Jesuit Fathers take over St. Louis Church, but also they were responsible for founding many of the early parishes and schools of the area. In 1905, a new Church was constructed in Romanesque style and the parish was renamed Sacred Heart. It is the oldest parish and church within the diocese.
After the establishment of the Catholic colony of San Antonio and the Parish of St. Anthony of Padua in the 1880s, the Benedictine monks and nuns who came to Pasco County later in the decade are another important religious community in the history of the diocese. They founded, and staffed for many years, most of the parishes of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus Counties. Other early pioneer Religious include the Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus and Mary, who founded our oldest Catholic school in 1881, the Sisters of St. Joseph, who came to educate African-American children, and the Redemptorists and Salesians, both of whom worked in the immigrant Latin community in Ybor City and West Tampa.
The growing population and economic boom following World War II brought major changes to this area, much of it under the tutelage of the sixth bishop of St. Augustine, Joseph P. Hurley. Archbishop Hurley was a man of great vision, tremendous plans, and the will to do it! Archbishop Hurley presided over the largest institutional build-up in the history of the Florida Church. Not only did the Archbishop purchase property for future investment or development, he also established many new parishes and schools and recruited many priests from Ireland and the north United States to staff them. More than 40% of the parishes within our diocese today were founded during the Hurley years.
Because of the growth of the Church in Florida, plans for a new diocese along the West Coast were developed as early as the mid-fifties. Contrary to Archbishop Hurley’s recommendations, Miami was chosen instead of the Tampa Bay area and the new diocese was created in south Florida in 1958. Barely five years later, plans were drawn up for two new dioceses in central Florida.
On June 17, 1968, the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg was formally established with Bishop Charles B. McLaughlin as its first and founding bishop. The newly created diocese stretched from Crystal River to Ft. Myers encompassing eleven counties. The first task of the Bronx native and former auxiliary bishop of Raleigh, North Carolina was to establish a new diocesan structure to unify priests, personnel, policy, and people from the two dioceses. He also faced the challenge of dealing with the rapidly increasing population within his diocese.
Bishop McLaughlin inherited many fine priests from the Dioceses of St. Augustine and Miami and relied on their cooperation and assistance in the years to come. He also fostered native vocations and was a strong supporter of the Florida seminaries. Bishop McLaughlin had the unenviable responsibility of meeting the pastoral demands of a flock strewn over two hundred miles from end to end. Bishop McLaughlin, who was a pilot, often flew from event to event to try to keep pace with this superhuman task, a characteristic that earned him the affectionate nickname “Hurricane Charlie.”
Bishop McLaughlin also implemented the vision and reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Bishop McLaughlin had a profound influence on the diocese he founded. Clergy and laity were saddened and shocked by his sudden death on December 14, 1978. Bishop McLaughlin set a tone of dedicated service for the entire diocese. His care for his priests and his people has left a charisma within the diocese that remains today.
Monsignor W. Thomas Larkin, the Vicar General of the diocese and interim diocesan administrator, was appointed the Second Bishop of St. Petersburg on April 17, 1979. He was ordained to the episcopate on May 27 by his former classmate, Pope John Paul II. Bishop Larkin was formally installed as the diocese’s second bishop on June 28. A period of tremendous growth occurred during Bishop Larkin’s tenure. Bishop Larkin’s ambitious pastoral plan resulted in the establishment of fifteen new parishes and three new schools.
It was not long however before there was another sign of the Church’s growth in this part of the state. In the summer of 1984, one of two new Florida dioceses were created out of the lower portion of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. After the establishment of the Diocese of Venice on October 25, the Diocese of St. Petersburg comprised Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas Counties. These five counties still had a flourishing Catholic population.
Bishop Larkin expanded the outreach of the social ministries of the diocese, established a radio station (WBVM 90.5 FM), and further sought to keep pace with the population growth and economic expansion of the 1980s. Ultimately, his ambitious pastoral plan to develop new parishes had to be curtailed due to mounting debt and a general economic downturn. Bishop Larkin announced his retirement for health reasons in November 1988. During his retirement, Bishop Larkin continued to lovingly minister to the faithful until he was called to the Lord on November 4, 2006.
Bishop John Clement Favalora, a native of New Orleans and former Bishop of Alexandria, Louisiana, was installed as the Third Bishop of St. Petersburg on May 16, 1989. As bishop he directed his time toward administrative reorganization to manage effectively the many diocesan demands brought on by the rapid growth of the 1980s. Initially, Bishop Favalora took a number of steps to consolidate the various administrative functions of the diocese through the reorganization of the Chancery and the consolidation of diocesan social outreach programs through Catholic Charities.
Bishop Favalora made Catholic education his top priority within the diocese. He gave his leadership to the Catholic Education Foundation to ensure the continued existence of vibrant Catholic schools within the diocese. He also took an active role in planning for the future construction of new Catholic schools.
Declaring “A Year of Favor From The Lord,” Bishop Favalora presided over a fourteen-month celebration marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Bishop Favalora closed the Jubilee Year with a solemn Pontifical Liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle on April 17, 1994. Just seven month later, Bishop Favalora was named the Third Archbishop of Miami and was installed on December 20, 1994.
After nearly a year of vacancy, Pope St. John Paul II appointed Monsignor Robert N. Lynch the Fourth Bishop of St. Petersburg on December 5, 1995. A priest of the Archdiocese of Miami, former rector of the St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, and former General Secretary to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Lynch was already well known in the diocese. Bishop Lynch was consecrated bishop in the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle on January 26, 1996, by his predecessor Archbishop John C. Favalora. Bishop Lynch’s consecration brought the largest number of bishops to the diocese at one time, including Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, who delivered the homily.
In preparation for the great Jubilee Year, Bishop Lynch endorsed the Renew 2000 program in the local parishes as well as encouraged development of small Christian faith-sharing communities. He also focused on the Jubilee concepts of forgiveness, freedom, and release from burden. To do this, he presided at communal celebrations for the sacrament of penance throughout the diocese something he would later do during the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016. He also instituted a “debt-forgiveness” program by which he released parishes in need from the burden of millions of dollars of debt payments.
In an effort to consolidate different ministries and offices from several locations throughout the diocese together under one roof, Bishop Lynch commissioned the building of the Bishop W. Thomas Larkin Pastoral Center, which was formally dedicated on March 31, 2000.
In establishing the first ever diocesan-wide Capital Campaign, Bishop Lynch put forward a vision to address the present and future needs of the diocese. To that end, Bishop Lynch established a new diocesan high school, Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School, to serve students in the northern three counties of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School was completed in north Pasco County in August 2003. Bishop Lynch was also able to make significant campus additions to each of the three other diocesan high schools. Fulfilling a dream for a retreat center which he helped to design, Bishop Lynch opened the Bethany Retreat Center in Lutz in May 2007. The following year Bethany’s beautiful St. James Chapel was completed in “Old Florida” style with the specially commissioned bronze doors and outdoor crucifix and stations.
In 2007 Bishop Lynch shifted his focus to a three year effort focusing on the celebration of the Eucharist. During this time, he also wrote his only Pastoral Letter, entitled Living Eucharist: Gathered, Nourished, Sent in an effort to promote Eucharistic catechesis. Multiple large diocesan celebrations and catechical sessions were held. During this same time, responding to an urgent need to address the homeless population, Bishop Lynch began a temporary housing site on 10 acres of diocesan land. Named “Pinellas Hope” it quickly grew under his guidance into a comprehensive outreach that provides food, shelter, safety and opportunities to build a dignified life for those most in need in our community.
In 2012, Bishop Lynch once again shifted his focus back to building with a major renovation of the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle that culminated in its formal consecration on September 12, 2013. No doubt cementing his legacy as “Bob the Builder,” Bishop Lynch embarked on a second diocesan capital campaign that resulted in the construction of a new Catholic elementary school, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in northwest Hillsborough County. He also doubled the capacity of the oldest parochial school in the diocese, St. Anthony of Padua in San Antonio with a new building. Part of the campaign funds also went to the expansion of the state’s major seminary in Boynton Beach. After nearly 21 years of service, Bishop Lynch submitted his retirement letter in May 2016 and it was accepted by Pope Francis six months later.
On November 28, 2016, the Bishop Gregory L. Parkes was appointed the fifth Bishop of St. Petersburg and was formally installed on January 4, 2017 at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle as the diocese’s newest shepherd.
Bishop Gregory L. Parkes himself is a native of Long Island who moved Florida with his family after graduating from high school. After graduating from Florida State University and before entering seminary, he worked in Tampa in the banking industry where he was a member of Christ the King in South Tampa. His seminary formation took place at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida and the Pontifical North American College in Rome. After his ordination to the priesthood in June of 1999, he served the Diocese of Orlando in several assignments before being appointed as the Fifth Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee in 2012.
Bishop Parkes immediately set out to get to know the people and clergy of the Diocese of St. Petersburg through visits and open-ended listening sessions.
History compiled by Fr. Len Plazewski.
For an interesting history of the area before it became the Diocese of St. Petersburg, order the book Catholic Parish Life on Florida’s West Coast, 1860-1968 by Fr. Michael J. McNally, Ph.D. For more information on the book, email Lisa Mobley at email@example.com.