Established in 1908, the parish of Saint Mary, Our Lady of Grace Church is the oldest Catholic church in St. Petersburg, Florida. Located at the end of the spur route of Interstate 175 as it enters downtown St. Petersburg, the current church completed in 1929 is a landmark many in the Tampa Bay area recognize.
A main unique feature of this Byzantine-style Romanesque church is that unlike most churches which are built with a cruciform floor plan, St. Mary, Our Lady of Grace is built in a rare octagonal floor plan. Octagonal floor plans are more common in Europe, where they were the primary form of separate baptisteries for the sacrament of baptism before one was able to enter a church during medieval times.
The church has an impressive baldachin within an inset sanctuary on the southwest side of the nave. Baldachins are canopies covering the altar, and were features of many churches before Vatican II. They are still used today for outdoor masses as required by liturgical law.
This baldachin is made of handcrafted American black walnut wood, with a dome and angels adorned with 24-karat gold.
In 2019, Msgr. John Kennedy, head of disciplinary action for Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, celebrated Mass beneath this baldachin when St. Petersburg hosted the Catholic Media Conference.
Other interior church features are noted on the website of the parish.
Florida is the historic centre of Catholicism in America. In fact, the oldest Christian congregation in the continental US was the 1565 establishment of the parish which is now the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine in St. Augustine, Florida. An American history tidbit, 1565 in St. Augustine was also the first Thanksgiving in America. This isn’t too surprising if you know your Catholic terms, as the Eucharist does in fact mean ‘thanksgiving.’
If you’re in the Tampa Bay area, be sure to note that it isn’t only American Catholicism which originated here. Tampa, the centre of this metropolitan region, was where another American gospel hero Billy Graham first began his powerful evangelism crusade on Franklin Street. This beginning undoubtely inspired the eponym for his son Franklin Graham.
Final note, the Church of Scientology (non-Christian) has a huge presence in this region as well. Flag Land Base in Clearwater, Florida is known as the ‘worldwide spiritual headquarters’ of the Church of Scientology. As such, the Church of Scientology marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of their Founder L. Ron Hubbard by opening a church in a repurposed heritage building originally opened as a cigar factory. It was opened in 2011 in Ybor City, an historical district in the core of the City of Tampa.