KEY WEST -- Just a short walk from the party scene of Sloppy Joes and Captain Tonys is eight acres of calm named after the Blessed Virgin Mary.
If you want the madness of Key West, its right around the corner, said Tom Callahan, volunteer executive director of the outreach mission run by Saint Mary Star of the Sea, the oldest Roman Catholic church in South Florida. But if you want some serenity at a beautiful place and feel the presence of God, go to Saint Marys.
In a town that has nearly 300 bars, people come and go all day long at the church. For more than 160 years, Saint Marys parish has been quietly providing peace, hope, joy and community service to residents and visitors of this island city.
But now Saint Marys will be known worldwide.
On Feb. 11, the Feast of the Lady of Lourdes, great news came from Rome. Pope Benedict XVI designated Saint Mary Star of the Sea as a Minor Basilica, one of the Vaticans highest honors. Its only the fifth such Basilica in Florida and just the 72nd in the United States.
To celebrate, The Most Reverend Thomas Wenski, the Archbishop of Miami, will preside over a solemn Mass with the conferral of the insignia of a Basilica on Thursday, the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I am excited and joyful for this parish, said Father John Baker, pastor of Saint Mary, who now becomes rector of the Basilica.
Saint Mary Star of the Sea is not accustomed to attention, he added. People here just do it. We have a need, we respond to it.
That has been the case since the parish was formed in 1846 and opened its first church in 1851. Among its most notable good deeds came in 1898, when the parishs Convent of Mary Immaculate shut down and the Sisters cared for hundreds of wounded from the sinking of the Battleship Maine off Cuba, an event that sparked the Spanish American War.
These days, the churchs community service includes running an outreach mission that provides clothing and nearly 60,000 pounds of food per month for about 2,500 unemployed and working poor families and operates a daily soup kitchen that feeds the massive homeless population.
There are only about 3,400 Minor Basilicas in the world. All four Major Basilicas are in Rome: St. Peter, St. John Lateran, St. Paul, and St. Mary Major.
Saint Mary Star of the Sea becomes the Popes parish church here in the Archdiocese of Miami, Wenski said when he made the announcement.
Wenski began the Basilica process just two months after he became Archbishop in 2010. He said during a phone interview Thursday that Saint Mary Star of the Sea deserved the designation because of its history, community service and beautiful architecture.
That parish was in existence even before the city of Miami, he said. One of the benefits of being declared a Basilica is the title invites people to discover that history.
Basilicas attract pilgrims from all over the world. Saint Marys already had been luring busloads from Miami and worshippers from many countries, but the official designation will make it even more popular.
I felt the presence of God the first time I walked into that church, Callahan said. You should be able to say that about every place of worship, but you cant. You go to other places and its sterile.