Diverse parish, Holy Cross, celebrates half century

Naomi Vaught remembers the first 50 years of Holy Cross Catholic Church at 505 26th St. W. in Palmetto like it was yesterday.

The church celebrated its 50th anniversary on Dec. 12, 2008, and Vaught has been helping Father Teofilo Useche of Holy Cross put together a history of the church for the golden celebration. Vaught’s family had been instrumental in helping build Catholic communities in Manatee County after they moved to the area in 1915.

“I’ve lived in Manatee county all of my life,” said the 84-year-old devout Catholic and longest serving member of Holy Cross. “My mother was one of the first five Catholics in the area.”

The Vaught family settled on Moccasin Wallow Road and in those days didn’t have much, but Catholicism remained a significant part of their lives, Vaught recalled. In fact at Christmas, her mother said if she didn’t receive anything else, she just wanted to go to midnight mass.

“Catholicism is in my family,” said Vaught. “It’s always been very important. My Catholicism is where I get my strength and determination.”

Long before Holy Cross and even before St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was built on 12th Avenue; Vaught recalled attending Catholic masses held in the Fogarty building on Ninth Street. St. Joseph’s became the first Catholic Church built in Manatee County back when Florida had only the St. Augustine diocese, she said.

Vaught recalled the few Catholic families residing in Manatee County working hard to support St. Joseph’s and their Catholicism. With Catholics being a scarce in the area, occasionally Father William O’Brien would visit her home to teach Catechism to her brother and sister, she said. At that time, priests received only a small stipend for their pastoral duties so her father would help by donating fresh vegetables from their farm.

“There wasn’t a lot of money around,” said Vaught. “Everybody donated their efforts.”

It wasn’t until the 1940s that more Catholics relocated to Florida and to Manatee County, said Vaught. On Oct. 21, 1956, Father Joseph O’Shea was sent to start the first Catholic Church north of the Manatee River in Palmetto, soon to be called Holy Cross.

The first masses for Holy Cross Church were held at the Palmetto Women’s Club, she said.

Father Joseph O’ Shea would travel by ferry from St. Petersburg across Tampa Bay to Piney Point, and then back again, weather permitting, Vaught recalled.

“If the weather was good, he could go back that way,” she said. “If the weather was bad, he would have to go through Tampa.”

When it was decided by the St. Augustine Diocese to build a church, Vaught was approached by O’Shea to help because of her family’s long history with the church and their devotion to the Catholic faith.

“He said ‘we’re going to do it,’ ” said Vaught. “We’re going to raise these funds.”

After raising $15,000, Holy Cross purchased 15 acres one mile north of Palmetto for a church in December of 1956, according to Vaught.

About 100 Catholic families broke ground for a new parish on June 8, 1958. The church was dedicated by the Archbishop Joseph Hurley on Dec. 12, 1958.

Holy Cross is the only Catholic church in Palmetto and is one of the most northern churches in the Venice Diocese, which was started in 1984, according to Vaught.

But as agriculture began to grow around Manatee County, Palmetto’s Catholic Church began to grow, and parishioners decided to build a new Holy Cross Church in 1989 to replace the old church, which then became the Christian education building.

The new, more modern church was built in the shape of a Celtic cross, and appointed with intricate glass work and artwork depicting traditional Catholic values as well as honoring the church’s beginnings.

A painting of Christ’s last supper created by a parishioner was just recently installed in honor of the church’s 50th anniversary, and a Catholic memorial garden and a Circle of Honor garden commemorating service personnel were completed as well.

During its first 50 years, Holy Cross Catholic Church has welcomed multiple nationalities including Hispanic, Haitian, Polish, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Dutch, German and Brazilian which have been prevalent in the growing agricultural area, said Useche.

It was those demographics that prompted the archbishop of the Venice Diocese to call on Useche, a Venezuelan native, to serve the church in 2001.

Useche strives to connect the diverse population of Catholics within the walls of Holy Cross.

And it seems to be working as the church today celebrates a parish of nearly 800 families.

“We had humble beginnings and look at what it is,” he said. “People come from everywhere here. It’s never ending in spite of the differences.”

Useche said what makes Holy Cross is not the institution, nor its membership, but the presence of God that can be found within the church.

“No one who has been here will leave the same,” said Useche. “You see something that widens your personal understanding of what’s going on. It changes your point of view. It changes your point of history.”