First in Miami Beach

On May 12, 1926, Father William Barry was appointed to a sparsely populated Miami Beach to found St. Patrick Church. The first Mass was celebrated in the Miami Beach Gardens Theater on 41st Street and Alton Road on Sunday, May 13, 1926.

Miami Beach developer, Carl G. Fisher, a non-Catholic, donated five polo stables to Father Barry for use as a church and school for St. Patrick’s. On June 2, 1926 Miami Beach Catholicism was born in the offering of Christ in the Eucharist at the first mass held in a refurbished stable.

One week prior to the beginning of St. Patrick’s first school year, on September 17, 1926, a violent hurricane devastated Miami Beach. The church and school buildings that were to open in just days were ravaged. The building lost its roofs, windows, doors, curtains and everything else one can imagine. The hurricane, which killed 392 and injured 6,281, devastated the school and church buildings and grounds. The polo stables were hastily repaired and the school opened two weeks later with 20 of the 150 students registered prior to the hurricane.

The storm of 1926 strengthened Father Barry’s resolve to create a permanent church and school structure. Father Barry and a committee of parishioners chose a site of 12 lots between 39th and 40th Streets and planned new structures that would include a church, rectory, convent, school, recreation hall and auditorium.

On February 22, 1928, the cornerstone for the church was laid. After the Wall Street crash of 1928, Father Barry ingratiated himself with financiers and bankers by declaring publicly that he would not take the parish money out of the banks. For the next several years, Barry concentrated his efforts on paying off loans and debts incurred in the building project.

While the rest of the country was in financial turmoil, Miami Beach’s leisure lifestyle was featured by the press.

In 1942 Miami Beach became an army base. Local hotels and motels were taken over by hundreds of thousands of servicemen. Father Barry joined the effort by allowing the army to use all parish facilities. The impact was very positive. Sunday services were filled to capacity.

Tourism flourished after World War II and Miami Beach became one of the most popular destinations.

School of Quality

Enrollment at St. Patrick’s School mimicked tourism as it flourished in Miami Beach after World War II. The original school building had eight classrooms, a clinic, a library and office suites.

In 1934, the school expanded to contain a patio within the grounds. In 1936, an auditorium was erected and the gymnasium was constructed in 1937. At the time Florida ranked very low in national academics evaluation, but St. Patrick’s offered an ambitious curriculum that guaranteed its graduates acceptance into any Catholic university in America.

Although St. Patrick’s closed its high school in the 1970’s due to financial hardships, the school has never lost sight of its high standards. An early childhood center was opened and in 1990 the school was named a “National School of Excellence” by the U.S. Department of Education and named one of the “seven model schools in the nation” by the Secretary of Education, William Bennett.

The Founder

Born in Ireland, William Barry was one of thirteen children. Four of the Barry family entered religious life:

  • Bishop Patrick Barry, fifth bishop of St. Augustine, FL;
  • Mother Gerald, Mother General of the Adrian Province of the Dominican Sisters;
  • Monsignor William Barry, Pastor of St. Patrick’s Church and
  • Father Joseph Barry, Pastor in the Diocese of Killaloe, Ireland.

Although St. Patrick’s closed its high school in the 1970’s due to financial hardships, the school has never lost sight of its high standards. An early childhood center was opened and in 1990 the school was named a “National School of Excellence” by the U.S. Department of Education and named one of the “seven model schools in the nation” by the Secretary of Education, William Bennett.

William Barry was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Baltimore, for the Diocese of St. Augustine, in June of 1910. After postgraduate studies at Catholic University of Washington D.C., he was assigned as assistant pastor at the Cathedral parish in St. Augustine. In 1912 he was sent to Jacksonville. After various assignments as assistant pastor, he was appointed pastor of Our Lady of the Angels and Holy Rosary Churches. In 1922 he became founding pastor of St. Paul’s Parish, building a church and school.

In 1926 he was transferred to Miami Beach to found St. Patrick’s Church. Barry’s accomplishments at St. Patrick’s are many and evident on every page of this history. In May of 1937 Pope Pius XII elevated Barry to the dignity of Domestic Prelate in honor of his hard work. He remained pastor of St. Patrick’s until 1966 prior to his death in 1967.

Successors

Monsignor James J. Walsh was appointed pastor of St. Patrick’s in 1966 and ushered in a new era.

He put into practice the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. He also accepted the challenges of a dramatic influx of Hispanics from Cuba, Central and South America as successive coups d’etat toppled governments throughout the region. St. Patrick’s population increased rapidly, and religious and social service needs intensified. The parish’s marriage and baptismal registry documents the change in demographics. Marriages of Hispanics in 1958 were two compared with 12 in 1968. Baptism of Hispanics rose from seven to 35 in the same time span. Yet, at this time, in a parish founded some 40 years ago, funerals outnumbered both.

During this wave of change, St. Patrick’s leadership changed as well. In 1971, Father Rene H. Gracida became pastor and in 1972 Father Joseph P. Cronin was appointed. The seventies were financially difficult times. Cronin faced pressures from the newly formed Archdiocese of Miami and had to make tough decisions. He struggled to provide the needed services and to meet operational expenses. He depended on a small group of longtime faithful parishioners to support the parish.

In 1981, Father James P. Murphy took over as a pastor. Murphy revitalized the liturgy and improved the academic standards of the school, making it a U.S. School of Excellence. In an article for the Miami Herald, Murphy is quoted, “The beach is changing, our church is becoming alive.” Under Murphy’s leadership, the family of St. Pat’s grew and church attendance reached 2,300 families. Bequests received from parishioners helped maintain the parish financially. In 1989 the church’s stained glass windows, which Monsignor Barry had installed in 1941, were restored. The 23 windows on the lower level depict various saints and feature the Irish patron St. Patrick. To meet the demands of a growing church, Father Murphy embarked on an ambitious building campaign to meet the needs of the 21st century. The 1992 expansion plan included converting two single family residences on Garden Avenue into one to be used as a convent. The old convent was renovated for educational purposes. The cafeteria was converted into a childcare facility for preschool children. The old Barry Hall was demolished and replaced with a new two-story parish center.

In 1996 Monsignor John Vaughan was appointed pastor of St. Patrick’s. He revived the old with a renovation and restoration project that paid homage to the integrity of material and design of the original church. The high altar, baldachino, tabernacle, statues and altar rails were cleaned, polished and restored. The original solid mahogany pews were removed, dipped and refinished. Monsignor Vaughan introduced the new by placing the permanent altar directly under the dome of the church bringing the celebration of the mass closer to the people. He also provided additional ministries and services sensitive to the varying languages and cultures of St. Patrick’s parishioners: The 1998 baptismal records indicate there were 240 baptisms, of which 158 were Hispanic.