By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff – November 27, 2017
Standing amidst a hub of churches in central downtown, the assembly gathered at St. James Cathedral in Orlando with voices raised high singing, “Let us build a house where love can dwell.” The chorus ushered in the 40th anniversary celebration of the cathedral and the opening of its new gift shop.
The site was a familiar one—pews packed with spirit-filled parishioners, young and old, coming together to worship the Lord and share in the celebration of Mass as they have for 136 years. Bishop John Noonan celebrated the bilingual Mass in the company of the cathedral’s first rector, Monsignor David Page and Father Richard Zgorzelak, associate pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Titusville.
So how is this 136-year-old parish community only 40? And why is the cathedral only celebrating its 40th birthday when the Diocese of Orlando is soon to celebrate its 50th anniversary? It’s not a riddle, but a look at its history as a church will shed some light.
St. James is the oldest church in the diocese. The history of its property goes as far back as its purchase in 1881 by Bishop John Moore. Initially a wooden structure on 60-acres in downtown, the church served as a parish under the Diocese of St. Augustine. Soon Florida’s population boom elicited the need to form the Diocese of Orlando to better serve Catholics in the region. At the time, St. Charles Borromeo Cathedral was built to serve the five counties that comprised the diocese. However, a fire in October 1976 set the course for a new cathedral that was more centrally located and could accommodate the needs of the growing Church in Central Florida. By then, St. James’ original wooden church had been replaced in 1952 with a more modern, 1,000-seat church dedicated under Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley. On November 20, 1977 Bishop Thomas Grady dedicated St. James as the new cathedral for the diocese.
St. James’ parishioner since 1957, Nancy Lewis, remembers the transition well. “I was on parish council when we brought it up to move the cathedral here from St. Charles and that’s when it was passed. I made a motion and there it went,” said Lewis smiling. Now a greeter, Lewis continues to welcome all who enter the cathedral’s doors.
Visibly exuberant on the occasion of the anniversary, Monsignor Page addressed the crowd saying, “St. James has always been a deeply spirit-filled community. It is especially a joy to see how vibrant a parish it is and how strong it is after all these years.”
Father Miguel Gonzalez, the cathedral’s current rector, concluded the Mass with a reprise of the Gospel reading from Mt 25:14-30 in which Jesus refers to the “talents” entrusted to the servants of the household and the fruit borne by their investment. He said, “May we continue to share and celebrate the gifts that our founding families worked so hard to pass on to other generations. May we also pass on those gifts to future generations that come to St. James Cathedral.”
After Mass, the clergy processed to the new gift shop to cut the ceremonial ribbon and partake in the shop’s blessing. Father Gonzalez, who was named rector in September 2016 after the passing of Father John McCormick recalled, “This is something that I have always envisioned. What a remarkable place to have a gift shop—close to the chapel, visible corner, opportunity for people to come and be nourished spiritually by the different religious books and articles that are available.”
Father Gonzalez enlisted the assistance of longtime friend and parishioner Leida Haddock whose seven years’ experience volunteering in the gift shop at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe was invaluable. The gift shop is the first part of a project that will include a coffee house in the adjoining courtyard. He noted, “There will be tables, umbrellas and an outdoor café. The courtyard on the other side will be developed as a more contemplative prayer garden.” Haddock added, “We want to be an instrument of evangelization. This was such a privilege to share this vision.”
With University of Central Florida and Valencia State College opening campuses nearby in 2019, the rector hopes to be prepared to offer a place of fellowship and community building. He noted that part of his vision is finding ways to let the people “know that we’re here.”
In his homily, Bishop Noonan remarked, “Life is about living your faith every day. Life is about sharing your faith, not just in church on Sunday, but with every person you come into contact with.”
As new generations come to live out their faith and worship together, St. James remains standing tall. Looking ahead, Lewis spoke of those to come. “I hope they appreciate the church, all the people who founded it; all those who worked to make it so. And that they will worship here like we have and really feel the presence of God.”