About St. Joseph's
The Sisters of Mercy began the Catholic Church’s work for blacks in Pensacola when they opened St. Joseph colored and creole schools on September 8, 1877. St. Joseph Catholic Church. Built in 1891, was the first African-American parish in the Diocese of Mobile. The first church was a two-story frame building. The present Gothic Revival style church, built in 1894, cared for the needs of African-Americans, Creoles, Germans, Italians, and Irish Immigrants.
In the 1920s, Father Charles Hartkoff, the Church’s second pastor, built and opened St. Joseph Orphanage, which took in homeless African-American boys. In 1939, Father John J. Raleigh, closed and reopened one school operated by the Sisters of Charity of Convent Station. New Jersey.
Two years later. St. Joseph High School Opened, the only Catholic African-American high school in the state of Florida at that time. At its height, St. Joseph operated “Maryall Negro Missions.” which included four chapels: Mary Immaculate, Our Lady of Victory, Our Lady of Fatima, and Our Lady of Africa. Other ministries included Our Lady of Fatima Mission School and Our Lady of Angels Maternity Hospital for African– American women located beside the church’s grammar and High school.
St. Joseph Parish was founded in 1891. Under the work of Mrs. Mercedes Ruby it became the first St. Joseph Catholic Church. Built in 1892 and located in a two story building behind the present church, it has been a mission of St. Michaels. The first pastor of St. Joseph was the Rev. Robert Fullerton. St. Joseph became a very unique church in the Deep South. It was a black parish with the majority of its membership of white (immigrants) and controlled by creoles. The present church was stated in 1893 and dedicated on March 30, 1894. The great features of the church were its stained glass windows. The windows were made in Germany and are very simple in design with much detail given to folds in clothing and background scenery.
In 1900, St. Joseph Cemetery was started. It was one of the few integrated cemeteries. The most drastic change came around 1904 with the enforcement of Jim Crow Laws. In addition, this did not affect the parish until around 1920 when the whites of St. Joseph were forced out and made to go to other Catholic Churches in Pensacola.
When St. Joseph became a parish it operated two schools, St. Joseph Creole and St. Joseph Colored which were operated by the Sisters of Mercy. These schools opened September 8, 1877.
Under Father Charles Hartkoff an orphanage was added and the Trinitarians were brought into work within the parish. In 1938 when Fr. John Raleigh became pastor, the orphanage was closed along with the schools. Later, one school reopened under the Sisters of Charity. Besides the grammar school and high school, the parish also operated 4 mission chapels, a mission school, a maternity hospital which was operated by the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis while in 1941 a high school. This complex was under the title of Maryall Negro Mission, which was one of the first attempts to attract Blacks into the Catholic Church. To date, Fr. Hartkoff is recognized by performing an outstanding job. To this day many non-Catholic blacks know of Fr. Hartkoff and his work.
In the 1960’s things began to change with the coming of integration, the mission chapels and mission school closed, the maternity hospital also closed. Finally, in 1968 the high school closed and the grammar school survived until 1977.
The 1980’s was a period of rapid change and activity for the parish. After 12 years of being pastor of St. Joseph, Fr., Michael Mooney was transferred to the Nativity of Our Lord Parish. Bishop Rene H. Gracida became the seventh pastor of St. Joseph. The Indo-Chinese Mission was also attached to St. Joseph. On January 11, 1981, Council and Court 223 of the Knights of Peter Claver were established. Changes to the church also took place during this time. For the first time restrooms were built in the church, new carpet, new lighting and air conditioning. On December 24, 1987, the new parish hall was blessed by Bishop Symons. This project had been under the direction of the lovable, Fr. Joseph M.P. Wash, S.J. whom many great stories are still remembered about his stay as pastor. The 80’s ended with Father James J. Flaherty becoming the tenth pastor of St. Joseph.
The 90’s also ushered in other events for the parish. The parish celebrated the Centennial of the parish and in 1994 the Centennial for the church. The former hospital had been rented as income and it was decided with the new growth in the parish that the building would become the religious education building. The 90’s came to an end with Fr. Flaherty taking the St. Joseph Inspirational Choir o Rome to sing for Pope John Paul and the installation of Fr. Thomas A. Bonati as eleventh pastor.
Under Fr. Tom, the Walker Building had a complete makeover with the rooms being remodel to look like classrooms, paint job, carpet, a conference room and the front area of the building was made into Our Lady of Angels Chapel to be used for weekday Mass. The church was also having structural problems. The walls were leaning and as a result retention bars had to be added to hold the walls together. St. Joseph Caring & Sharing, an food and clothing program for the needy, was started as well as St. Joseph Clinic which was another program to take care of the health needs of the poor and homeless. With these projects, the parish was still caring out its mission to “Serve the sea-faryers and way faryers” of the community. There was concern that the church did not have enough land with its growth in membership, so there was a discussion on acquiring the two houses next to the Walker Building. Fr. Tom left in 2002 before a decision was made.
In March of 2002, Father Patrick Foley became the new pastor of St. Joseph. His first major decision was to follow through and buy two houses. With this purchase, the church now owned half the block of some of the most expensive property in Pensacola.
Thursday, September 16, 2004 will be a date that will long be remembered. Hurricane Ivan struck Pensacola. The entire church complex was damaged. The church steeple was blown into the roof of the church and back into the steeple, the front doors of the church were blown out, part of the side door was also blown out and water poured through the roof. The old rectory’s roof was blown off, the façade on the front of the Walker Building was destroyed and the bay flooded the front of the building. Just as the church was almost restored, Hurricane Dennis appeared on July 10, 2005. It changed directions at the last minute and went in farther east from Pensacola; the last hurricane that was to hit Pensacola was Katrina. It was headed directly for Pensacola. If it had not changed directions, this would have been the end of St. Joseph and all of downtown Pensacola.
As of 2006, the parish has almost been completely restored except for a few minor things. On January 14, 2006, the parish celebrated the Silver Anniversary of the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver. The Mass was con celebrated by the Most Revered Rene’ Gracida, first Bishop of Pensacola- Tallahassee,; the Most Revered Martin Holly, Auxilary Bishop of Washington, D.C. and Chartered Member of Bishop Rene’ Gracida Council 223; and our bishop, the Most Reverend John Ricard, Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee.