Key West is known for its warm weather, restaurants, live music and fishing; however, it’s also immersed in history and architecture. One notable historic building is the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church. It is one of the oldest Catholic parishes in the state of Florida and the oldest parish in the Archdiocese of Miami. The church is in the Key West Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
The history of St. Mary Star of the Sea dates as far back as 1566, when the Spanish Jesuits came to Florida and, by 1567, a mission was established on Upper Matecumbe Key to minister to the indigenous people who were soon devastated by smallpox and measles.
By 1572, the mission was abandoned and would not return again until 1743, when two Italian Jesuit priest explorers came from Havana, Cuba and opened a mission chapel. As the unrest and struggle between Spanish rule and British rule grew, the Spanish governor was unable to offer the priests any real protection, so he ordered them back to Cuba.
The Catholic church didn’t fare well under the new British rule in the late 1700s. However, in 1820, a small Catholic community formed in Key West during the Civil War. By 1851, construction began on the first Catholic Church in Key West on the corner of Duval and Eaton St. This would be the fifth Catholic church erected in all of Florida and the first in South Florida. The church was finished and dedicated in February 1852. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in an arson fire in 1901.
The construction on the new church began immediately and was completed in 1905. This is the church that stands today. It has survived several hurricanes and undergone restoration throughout the last century. The exterior of the church reflects the American Victorian architecture. This is seen in the rounded, gothic arches, louvered shutters and stained glass.
The church was designed to be comfortable and cool in a subtropical climate. The exterior bays are defined by high and wide doorways along the east and west walls instead of windows to provide refreshing cross ventilation in the nave.
Visitors are welcomed to tour the basilica, grotto, garden and gift shop. Information on a self-guided walking tour of the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church is available at the entrance to the basilica or you can visit the web app at http://bsmkw.com on your mobile device.
For more information, visit www.stmarykeywest.com.