1960 to 1983
Prior to 1960, Catholics in Baker County attended Mass in neighboring parishes in Jacksonville and Starke, Florida. They met in each other’s homes for prayers weekly. Due to the increasing spiritual needs of the area which included the Catholic patients of the newly constructed Northeast Florida State Hospital as well as the Catholic residents of Baker County; Mr. Dykes and Mrs. Kathryn Jones requested and gained an audience with the Archbishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine, the Most Reverend Joseph P. Hurley, to explore the possibility of erecting a church in this area.
Dr. J.T. Benbow of Macclenny, Florida and Father Cornelius Dougherty of St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Starke, Florida confirmed the growing need for a church in the immediate area of Macclenny. Archbishop Hurley cognizant of the needs of the area, commissioned Father Dougherty to draw the original plans for a new Catholic Chapel.
The Chapel would be situated only a short distance to the east of Glen St. Mary on U.S. 90. The Chapel would appropriately be named St. Mary’s under the title of “Mother of Mercy” – a fitting tribute to its natural geographic location and the needs of the sick and imprisoned who would benefit from the spiritual activities of the Chapel.
It was also fitting that December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, patroness of the United States of America, was chosen as the day ground was to be broken for the new Chapel and to be dedicated in her honor. On December 8, 1959, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at noon to mark the beginning of the first Catholic Chapel to be erected in Baker County.
Present at the groundbreaking ceremony were: Father Cornelius Dougherty, pastor of St. Edwards, Tony and Mary Joseph, Charles and Kathryn Klein, Kathryn and Eldred Jones, George Stickle (the designing architect), Reid Davis of Jacksonville (the building contractor in charge of construction), Mr. Tate Powell Sr. (editor of the Baker County Press) and State Representative John Crews.
Father Dougherty, accompanied by two local altar boys, Stephen and George Joseph, turned the first spoonful of soil. The earth was blessed with Holy Water to symbolize the sacred purpose for which the land was used. The St. Mary’s Chapel was to be missionary in style, character and design and done in modern construction suggestive of Spanish Mission style.
Great missionaries of the past were said to have accompanied Catholic explorers such as Ponce de Leon, D’Allyon, Narvaez, and De Soto through the region that is Baker County. It has been suggested that if we knew the whole story of the early missionaries, the very area was probably blessed by the blood of Catholic martyrs. It is this missionary spirit that calls to mind the landing at St. Augustine and Pedro Menendez with four diocesan priests and the first parish mass in our country on September 8, 1565.
St. Paul’s Catholic Church and Assumption Catholic Church of Jacksonville responded generously to the needs of the budding church in Macclenny by graciously supplying: the Linens, Vestments and a portable Altar. The portable Altar is still in use today in the chapel located in the back left side of the church.
Sisters of St. Joseph in the Jacksonville area came to provide instruction to those who would care for the church and the religious articles. Through the generosity of Father Cornelius Dougherty and his family, as well as the founding families of St. Mary’s Chapel, the following gifts were presented to the nascent church: Tabernacle, 6 large candlesticks, Sanctuary Light, Stations of the Cross (the artistry of Hugo Olms, Cathedral artist of St. Augustine), Monstrance, Crucifix, statue of the Blessed Mother with Christ Child, and statue of St. Joseph.
The first Mass in the new St. Mary, Mother of Mercy Catholic Chapel was celebrated by Fr. Dougherty at 8:15 AM on October 2, 1960. The children’s choir from St. Paul’s Church sang for the Mass. Initial membership was 15 families.
On Sunday, October 23, 1960, the first Catholic Church in Baker County, St. Mary, Mother of Mercy Chapel was solemnly blessed at 4:30 PM by the Most Reverence, Joseph P. Hurley who stated, “ The new house of God could not but help draw the people of this vicinity closer to God by His presence and prayer.”
Twenty priests and ten sisters were among the 200 persons that attended the dedication of the new St. Mary, Mother of Mercy Chapel. Also present were Senator Ed Fraser and Hugo Olms, the mural artist for chapel and Cathedral artist.
The following priests served the Catholic faithful in Baker County:
1960 – 1963 Fr. Cornelius Dougherty
1963 Fr. Thomas Kelly
1964 - 1967 Fr Kirby elevated the Chapel to parish status encompassing all Baker County
1971 – 1975 Fr. Francis Cregan had the Altar face the Assembly and Mass was offered in English
1975 – 1976 Fr. Richard Bowles instituted the Parish Council
1976 – 1977 Fr. Patrick Foley
1977 – 1979 Fr. Anthony Serba was our first resident priest
1979 – 1981 Fr. Caesar Russo
1981 – 1983 Fr. Joseph Rinshaw