The first pastor of St. Joseph’s parish in Florida celebrated his first Mass at the new parish in the upper room of the Florida Fire House.
It was July 7, 1895, and Father Stanislaus J. Nowak was, essentially, a pastor without a church.
In April of the same year, the Middletown Daily Press reported in a single paragraph under Florida News Items: The Polanders have broken ground for their new church on Glenmere Avenue.
The cornerstone was set on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Sept. 8. From then until the church opened, the congregation assembled in the basement for Sunday Mass.
Archbishop Michael Corrigan, who had granted the request for a Polish church, blessed St. Joseph’s Church on Nov. 20, 1895. A solemn high Mass was sung. Archbishop Corrigan preached the sermon in English and Father M. Barabasz preached in Polish.
A parish cemetery, two miles from the church, was blessed in October 1897.
The coronavirus pandemic in 2020 postponed the 125th anniversary celebration of the parish until this year, when two Masses marked the occasion: the first, by Cardinal Dolan, was Aug. 22, as Hurricane Henri was hovering. The second, by retired Auxiliary Bishop Dominick Lagonegro, was Oct. 17. Father Bernard Heter, pastor of St. Joseph, concelebrated both Masses.
“It’s a milestone and people do recognize it as a milestone,” Father Heter recently told CNY.
“I seized upon the Year of St. Joseph to carry us along” in the delayed celebration, he said.
It is significant to Father Heter that the universal Church’s Year of St. Joseph, which honors the foster father of Jesus and head of the Holy Family, is celebrated in conjunction with the Florida parish’s anniversary. “I often address the congregation and speak of it as a parish family. The parish has always had a devotion to St. Joseph.”
Father Heter has a rich history with the parish, having been born and raised there. He received the sacraments of baptism, First Holy Communion and confirmation at St. Joseph’s. He is an alumnus of the parish school, which closed in 2007.
His paternal great-grandparents “established a foothold in Florida and the family’s been there ever since,” Father Heter said.
Ordained in 1974, Father Heter was named administrator of St. Joseph’s in 2014 and pastor in 2015. Last year, upon turning 75, he became administrator and this past July he was reappointed to a one-year term as administrator. “Overall, it’s worked out very well,” he said. “It’s great to be on your hometown turf.”
He appreciates “knowing the history of a good number of families in the area that I grew up knowing.”
There are 750-850 registered families between St. Joseph and the mission, St. Stanislaus.
According to the parish history, the first Polish settlers arrived in the black dirt area of Orange County some two decades before the turn of the 20th century and set out to reclaim the drowned lands—from Pine Island to Florida—and make them productive fields. Their love of the soil was exceeded only by their love of God.
They attended Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church in Goshen, often by foot when horse and carriage were unavailable.
A language barrier persisted. They petitioned the pastor of St. John’s parish to provide a Polish priest. As a result, three priests from New York City traveled to Goshen at intervals to offer the sacrament of reconciliation and celebrate Mass.
Later, St. Edward’s Mission in Florida offered special services for the Polish people but for the sacraments of baptism and matrimony, they had to travel to St. Stanislaus Church in New York City.
As the number of immigrants continued to rise, it was suggested the Polish community organize a church for their people.
By 1908, 13 years after the parish was founded, the church on Glenmere Avenue was deemed too small to serve the growing congregation, so an addition was built.
As more families moved into the area around Pine Island, it became apparent another church was needed. In 1912, a parcel of land was purchased in Pine Island for $500 and the thriving parish of St. Joseph lent St. Stanislaus $4,750 without interest. St. Stanislaus Church was dedicated in 1913 by then-Archbishop Patrick Hayes. For the next 11 years, St. Stanislaus was a mission church of St. Joseph’s. It would return as a mission church to St. Joseph’s in 2008.
The original St. Joseph School, dedicated Dec. 5, 1915, and served by the Felician sisters, consisted of four classrooms and an auditorium. It was later served by the Sisters of Charity, the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill and laity.
Today, in addition to the thriving religious education program, the parish has “a very lively and active” CYO sports program, according to Father Heter. Such groups offer young people “a good, stalwart example for them to organize their lives in a Christian way” and provide vitality to the parish, the pastor said.
He also noted the longevity of the Living Rosary Society and Holy Name Society, which provide spiritual sustenance.
Father Heter described the faith of his parishioners as “deep and solid.”
“They really have inspired me,” he said.