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 425,000 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. 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 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 Black children, and the Redemptorists and Salesians, both of whom worked in the immigrant Latin community.
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 was 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. His 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 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 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. He also established a second radio station (WLMS 88.3 FM) to reach the northern portions of the diocese.
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 the 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. In November, Bishop Favalora was named the Third Archbishop of Miami and was installed on December 20.
After nearly a year of vacancy in which Monsignor Brendan Muldoon administered the diocese, Pope 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 his own Cathedral, only the fourth time in Florida history and the first time in seventy-four years, on January 26, 1996, by 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.
Bishop Lynch continued the reorganization and management of the diocese begun under Archbishop Favalora. Bishop Lynch commissioned the building of a new Pastoral Center, and on March 31, 2000, the newly erected Bishop W. Thomas Larkin Pastoral Center was formally dedicated. The purpose of this new edifice was rededication to service “in one space, one place,” and it brought together under one roof ministries from several locations throughout the diocese. Like Bishop Favalora, Bishop Lynch made Catholic education, in the Catholic schools as well as in the religious education programs of the parishes, a top priority in the diocese. He also took an active role in planning for the future construction of new Catholic high schools, and improvements to the existing schools.
From the beginning of his episcopacy, Bishop Lynch expressed the belief that a bishop’s responsibilities are primarily to the diocese where he serves. This belief was soon made visible in the way he made himself present to the priests, deacons, religious, and faithful of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. He recognized the talents and abilities of priests, religious, and laity alike. That recognition crossed the boundaries of gender, age, and ethnicity. It was apparent in the appointments he made to positions within the diocesan structure.
In the summer of 1998, as preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000, Bishop Lynch began the program, Renew 2000, in the diocese. At the heart of this program is the development of small Christian faith-sharing communities. This program, as well as other programs of spiritual renewal already present in the diocese, was intended to create an active and informed Catholic laity in the diocese. In addition, in the Fall of 1998, Bishop Lynch lent his earnest support to the Lay Pastoral Ministry Institute, a program of training for the laity which included studies and formation in the areas of theology, spirituality, and pastoral ministry.
In further preparation for the great Jubilee Year, Bishop Lynch 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. He also instituted a “debt-forgiveness” program by which he released parishes in need from the burden of millions of dollars of construction debt, its payment and its longevity.
In establishing the first Capital Campaign of the diocese, Bishop Lynch once again focused on his responsibilities to the people of that diocese. He put in effect a plan to increase the priests’ retirement fund; started plans for the building of a Family Life/Spirituality Center for the spiritual growth of the people; established an endowment fund for Catholic Charities with special emphasis on support for senior citizens; and established two endowment funds for youth ministry: one for the youth ministers themselves, and the other for leadership development and scholarships for the youth under their care. Bishop Lynch also announced the establishment of 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. In May 2007, the first phase of the Family Life/Spirituality Center, now named Bethany Retreat Center, opened in Lutz.
After consultation with the priests of the diocese, Bishop Lynch decided to strengthen the focus of the Diocesan community on the Eucharist as the “source and summit” (Lumen Gentium, 11) of our Catholic faith. Titled Living Eucharist, this three-year initiative began on the Feast of Christ the King, Sunday, November 25, 2007, when Bishop Lynch published the first pastoral letter of his episcopate: Living Eucharist: Gathered, Nourished, Sent. Through catechesis, the Living Eucharist initiative hopes to deepen understanding of and strengthen devotion to the Eucharist in the faithful. We are currently in the first year of this initiative, which focuses on the Liturgy of the Word, and, in particular, the ways by which the Word of God prepares us to receive the precious body and blood as well as to spread God’s message to others.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org