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.
The application required a lot of historical detail and answers to 120 questions, written in Latin. Father Baker and his staff did most of the legwork.
Monsignor Terence Hogan helped with the Latin translation. If they were asking how many prayer groups you have, you cant think theyre asking about a certain type of bar, Father Baker said.
Measuring the church precisely in feet and meters also was required.
Church historian Bob Bernrueter helped resolve the fact from the fiction in the long history.
A 1901 fire destroyed the original church, which was on Duval Street. Every trace of arson was present, as the heart of the fire was in the very center of the organ, the history states.
Father Baker said there have long been rumors that the Ku Klux Klan was involved because the church welcomed people of all ethnicities. But local historian Tom Hambright told him that likely wasnt the case because the Klan had a rule to burn only at night, and this fire started in the daylight.
The new church was built at its present location on Windsor Lane, next to its Catholic school and convent.
Its design is in the high Victorian Gothic style that was popular at the turn of the 20th Century. Coral rock dug from the ground were used for the exterior. Instead of windows, high and wide doors were set all along the sides, which allowed for air to flow through to cool the building at a time when there was no air conditioning.
The open doors now make it possible to accommodate the large Mass crowds during the high season of Christmas through Easter.
Saint Marys pews can accommodate about 450 to 500 people, but many more often attend. The overflow crowd participates by being able to see through the doors.
The inside is in Byzantine style.
Daisy Coxon, who attended Mass last Thursday with her husband Chuck on his 70th birthday, said: Were cradle Catholics. The beauty of this church is the crucifixion, the statues of Joseph and Mary, the Stations of the Cross. Its home to us.
Rose Sminky, who has been a parishioner at Saint Mary for seven years, said the stained glass window that depicts Mary and baby Jesus kind of magnetizes you.
During a boating trip, she said, the gas ran out while they were far from shore. They all began praying to the rosary. Every time I look at the stained glass I think of how Mary really came to our help.
The church grounds are well known for a grotto containing the statues of the Lady of Lourdes and Bernadette, which was dedicated in 1922.
Sister Gabriel, who had survived three major hurricanes, organized the construction of the grotto that would be a place to seek protection from future storms by praying to Our Blessed Mother Mary.
Many people come here to pray and light candles during the times of hurricanes and all through the year, Father Baker said. Its a beautiful space for people to seek consolation of God in a very private way.
While there are about 1,200 families in the parish, thousands more visitors on vacation and snowbirds attend Mass at the church each year. A weekly one is done in Spanish and a monthly one in Polish.
To prepare for the solemn Mass and become a Basilica, three mosaics were commissioned from Italy. They depict the Coat of the Arms of the Pope, the Archdiocese of Miami and the newly minted one of the Basilica of Saint Mary. It prominently features a conch shell, the symbol of Key West.
Saint Mary also had to commission a tintinnabulum (a bell mounted on a pole), which signifies the churchs link with the pope, and the ombrellino (basically an umbrella that is part of the papal regalia).
Preparations for the solemn Mass also included renting tents and chairs and putting together a reception fit for an Archbishop all of which costs money.
We made no hard-core appeal, Father Baker said. But those who understood donated quite generously. It seems so miraculous to me. But it is indicative of this parish. We did not have to knock on doors and beg.
This island city is known for its celebrations: the 10-day debauchery Fantasy Fest, the Papas taking over during the Hemingway Days festival and Sushi the Drag Queen dropping from a giant red high heel on New Years Eve.
But the solemn Mass celebration will be one of a kind. Most Catholics never witness one in their lifetimes.
Father Baker expects about 2,500 people will attend the Mass, which is open to the public and will be broadcast on Jumbotrons, live streamed on websites including www.miamiarch.org
and broadcast on Radio Paz 830 AM.
The festivities begin at 6:45 p.m. with a procession from the parish school, Mary Immaculate Star of the Sea. It will meander through three outdoor areas set up on the church grounds for overflow seating. It ends inside the church. The procession includes the Knights of Columbus color guard, parish representatives, the Sisters of the Holy Spirit of Tanzania, priests and the insignia the bell and the umbrella.
Following the Mass, the celebration will continue with a dessert reception at the Marriott Beachside Resort. Transportation is being provided by the Key West Conch Train.
Pat Erickson, a Dominican Sister who volunteers at the Outreach Mission and works as a nurse practitioner at the Stock Island Detention Center, will do the first reading. She said she wont be nervous.
The church is very inviting, Erickson said. Its an open space that speaks to me a lot about the people.
About a half-hour after morning Mass on Thursday, unemployed Molly Mahoney pushed the wheelchair of boyfriend Brian Schaefer into the church. They have been hit by hard times. Were finding sanctity for a minute, she said. The Lord does look over me.