KEY WEST | A glance at the popular TripAdvisor website shows the outsized place Florida’s southernmost Catholic church, the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, holds among visitors and tourists to the Lower Keys.
As one recent travel advice posting stated: “A wonderful spot to relax, meditate, prayer and regroup. Grounds are well kept. Grotto has an interesting history. Church is a wonderful place to visit.”
Those walking around the grounds here likely will spot something they didn’t notice previously in terms of religious artworks or historical-architectural features.
The church is also a rich place for a Catholic religious pilgrimage, which has its own rewards in terms of the “plenary indulgence” accorded visits to basilicas. Plenary indulgences are considered valid any time the faithful go for devotion to the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, according to a page on the parish website detailing the canonical history of indulgences.
“Basilica” is a title of honor bestowed on a church of historical and spiritual importance by the Holy Father. Churches honored with the title basilica belong to two classes — major and minor.
In 2012, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski announced that the Vatican had approved St. Mary Star of the Sea’s designation as a minor basilica, making the church “the pope’s ‘parish church’” in the Miami archdiocese. The official designation ceremony took place May 31, 2012, on the feast of the Visitation.
There are only a few other basilicas in Florida, including St. Michael the Archangel Church in the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee — the oldest parish in Florida; the Cathedral Basilica in St. Augustine; the Basilica of St. Paul the Apostle in Daytona Beach; and the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, in Orlando.
ROOTS IN 16TH CENTURY
St. Mary Star of the Sea has a long history that precedes the current church structure. The parish’s roots date back to the 16th century, when Florida was a Spanish territory and the island of Cayo Hueso fell under the auspices of the Diocese of Havana. The early settlers in Key West were fishermen from Cuba.
The present church was dedicated in 1905. It was designed and built by Holland-born Brother Cornelius Otten, an early Jesuit religious in Florida who employed different architectural styles including early American Victorian, with Romanesque and early renaissance revival and other features.
Depending on what time of day one visits the church, the Florida sunshine casts its golden imprint on the interior and exterior, bringing to life the stunning stained-glass window of Our Lady Star of the Sea situated over the altar.
Handcrafted in Germany by the Frans Mayer Sons company, and paid for with financial support a century ago from the local Knights of Columbus, the great stained-glass window stands more than 12 feet tall and six feet wide. It was installed and dedicated in the current church in 1907.
Outdoors, located in front of the partition near the parish rectory entrance, a statue of Our Lady Star of the Sea is a popular feature for visiting pilgrims and tourists from as far away as Europe, according to the basilica’s rector, Father John Baker. The statue was originally located on the old parish elementary school building from the 1960s.
Perhaps most popular with Key West’s “Conchs,” as the locals are known, is the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, which depicts the appearance of Our Lady to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, France. It was designed by Sister Louis Gabriel, one of the religious based here a century ago, and dedicated on May 25, 1922, the feast of the Ascension and the 25th anniversary of her entrance into the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
The grotto is made of coral rock gathered from the parish school grounds. Sister Gabriel’s intention was to honor and petition Our Lady that a hurricane would never again cause widespread destruction and loss of life in Key West. Keys residents maintain that the island has been spared severe devastation since the erection of the grotto.
“When hurricanes are approaching, the local people show up and start praying,” said Florida writer and Key West native Bob Bernreuter, who wrote a book on the history of the basilica and is an executive officer with Historic Tours of America, a Key West-based national corporation.
“Sister Gabriel said on the day of its dedication as long as this grotto stands, she felt assured no hurricane would destroy Key West again,” Bernreuter said.
Also outdoors is a rock garden that in 2004 was converted into an outdoor Stations of the Cross Garden. It was blessed in December of that year by Miami’s then-auxiliary bishop, Felipe Estevez — now bishop of St. Augustine, itself the oldest diocese in Florida.
The stations are constructed of Carrara marble with mosaic scenes framed in bronze. The garden is illuminated at night and used regularly by visitors and local parishioners. At the entrance is a marble corpus nailed to a wooden crucifix. Directly behind and across the garden, on the other side of a fountain, Our Lady of Sorrows looks to heaven.
Bernreuter, the historian, said that over the years Key West went from being one of the most important and richest cities in the nation to one of the poorest during the Great Depression. Ironically, the 2020 pandemic created the conditions for a tourist boom and revival which propelled both tourism and real estate to new records.
“Key West was among the top three sites to vacation last year,” Bernreuter said. “We have never seen such success in the Keys and the town has been crowded all year because it is so outdoorsy, so you had social distancing built in.”