SAINT MARY MOTHER OF MERCY
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
1983 TO 1999
From 1983 until 1999, St. Mary Mother of Mercy parish was pastored by Fr. Joseph Maniyangat. The church celebrated its 25th Anniversary on October 27, 1985. Fr. Joe also celebrated the Silver Jubilee of his ordination on January 28, 1990. On September 4, 1990, two portable buildings were purchased to house CCD classes. The student enrollment continued to increase and the fruits of their Christian efforts gained numerous awards and accolades.
Due to the continuing growth of our Catholic community in Baker County, on October 30, 1994, ground was broken for a new larger church with the blessing of Bishop John Snyder. On October 13, 1996, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the new church was dedicated by Bishop Snyder.
On August 15, 1996, the Feast of the Assumption of our Blessed Mother, the first Mass was celebrated by Fr. Joe Maniyangat in the new church. On October 13th, 1996, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the new church was dedicated by the Most Reverend John Snyder, Bishop of St. Augustine. The concelebrants were: Most Reverend Samuel E. Carter S.J., the retired archbishop of Kingston, Jamaica, Msgr. Vincent Haut, Vicar General, Msgr. Logan, and twenty- two additional brother priests. The occasion of dedication was also graced by the presence of pastors and people of other Christian communities within Baker County and surrounding areas as well as the American Indian community, old parishioners, friends and benefactors. Fr. Joseph Maniyangat retired in 1999 and his nephew, Fr. Jose Maniyangat assumed the pastorship of St. Mary’s.
1999 TO 2010
Fr. Jose Maniyangat served as pastor of St. Mary’s until 2010. During that time, Fr. Jose served as the Catholic Chaplain for Florida State Prison in Starke, Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, and Northeast Florida State Hospital in Macclenny. He was the Diocesan Director of the Legion of Mary and he also conducted a healing ministry. To accommodate the growing needs of the parish, Fr. Jose also oversaw the construction of a multipurpose building that included parish offices, CCD classrooms, and a large meeting space for various ministries.
2011 TO 2018
In July 2011, we welcomed Father Slawomir Bielasiewicz as our pastor. During his seven year tenure with us, he also ministered to the Northeast Florida State Hospital, the local hospital and nursing home patients as well as the inmates at Florida State Prison in Starke and Union Correctional Institution in Raiford. During Father Slawomir’s leadership, St. Mary Mother of Mercy parish was blessed to serve as one of seven Jubilee churches within the Diocese of St. Augustine, and as such we served as a pilgrimage site for the faithful throughout 2015. In 2017, we were privileged to host the St. John’s Illuminated Bible (the first hand written Bible in six hundred years). In May 2018, Bishop Felipe Estevez asked Father Slawomir to take leadership of St. Mary in Korona, Florida and serve as their pastor.
From May 2018 through January 2019, St. Mary Mother of Mercy was blessed to have the following priests celebrate Mass with us: Father Jan Ligeza, Father Ed Booth, Father Charles Padathuruthy, Father Augustine Nwagbara and Father Anthony Sebra. We are so appreciative of their time and service to us.
2019 TO SEPTEMBER 2021
In February 2019, we welcomed Father Richard Rasch, OdeM as pastor of St. Mary Mother of Mercy and Father Michael Donovan, OdeM as pastor of St. Edwards in Starke. Both Father Richard and Father Michael live in residence at the rectory in Macclenny. In the few short months that Father Richard has been with us, we have installed church bells that joyfully ring out daily, a sign that we are a vibrant and active community. Additionally, Father Richard also rescued a beautiful statue of St. Mary, Mother of Mercy from a decommissioned church in Connecticut, coincidentally also named St. Mary Mother of Mercy. The statue is life size, originated in Spain and is one hundred years old – a treasure!
The Order of The Blessed Virgin Mary was invited by Bishop Estevez to come to the Diocese of St. Augustine to minister in the many state prisons in the area and Florida State Hospital as well.