Book Excerpts


St. Raphael School, St. Petersburg, Florida

Published by: RoseDog Books

Unlike most of the new missions accepted by the IHM Congregation, St. Raphael's in St. Petersburg, Florida was a well-established school with a lay faculty before the IHMs arrived in 1966. It was an unusual circumstance that brought about the fortuitous meeting of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Mostyn of St. Raphael's Parish, St. Petersburg, Florida, with the Sisters of IHM for the first time in the summer of 1965.

The Mostyn's were on vacation, visiting the Pocono Mountain area near Scranton. When dining at the Blue Shutters Inn they met several IHM Sisters from the area who were having a farewell dinner for one of the group leaving for Peru. The Mostyn's inquired about the availability of IHMs to staff their parish school in St. Petersburg, and were given the name and address of Mother Beata. Subsequently, Mother Beata was contacted by the pastor of St. Raphael's, Reverend William J. Weinheimer. (223)

As early as October 10, 1965, there is a record of the Central Administrative Assembly's consideration of Father Weinheimer's request for sisters, and a decision to send four sisters to St. Raphael's School in 1966. (224)

The next correspondence of record occurs four months later on February 13, 1966, when Father Weinheimer submitted to Mother Beata the plans for the convent to be built and sought suggestions regarding the adequacy of the plan. His comment that "We are just now beginning a fund drive to provide the money to build the convent and if possible also the rectory," must have signaled the slow pace of the project. (225)

Mother Beata accordingly postponed any action until the CAA (Central Administrative Assembly) meeting of March 6, 1966, at which the plan for the convent was discussed and suggestions made. These suggestions focused on a trunk room, cloak closet, and supply room in the convent. Mother Beata's letter of March 9, 1966, to Father Weinheimer indicated that she would share the suggestions for changes with him when she arrived in St. Petersburg. (226) A week later, letters to Father Weinheimer and to Bishop Joseph P. Hurley in St. Augustine, Florida, indicate the dates of her visit to Florida to be from March 21 to March 24.

The success of Mother Beata's visit to St. Raphael's School in St. Petersburg, Florida, was evidenced in the fact that five months later, on August 19, 1966, the first Scranton IHMs assigned to Florida arrived in Tampa at 6:20 p.m. The new Floridians were Sisters Paracleta (Irene) Gallagher, principal and superior, Mary Paulo McAndrew and St. Bernadette Hamilton. The pastor, Father Weinheimer and his assistant, Reverend Leo Flood, CSC, and the former principal of the school, Miss Elizabeth Sabathe welcomed the sisters.

The drive to St. Petersburg afforded the sisters a view of Tampa Bay and the unfamiliar palm trees along the way. Arriving in St. Petersburg, the sisters were given a quick tour of the church and school. Since the arrangements for even a temporary convent residence were not yet completed, the sisters were lodged in a three-bedroom suite with living room and dinette in the Edgewater Beach Motel. (227)

It would be three years and five residence moves later before the sisters would eventually move to a permanent convent home. The first of these moves came on August 30, one day after school had opened on August 29. This first rented residence was located at 1297 Eden Isle Boulevard next to the school and provided space for three bedrooms, a chapel, community room and large living room. Because of the lack of furnishings it was necessary to shop for basic items. A shower conducted by the Women's Guild supplied bed linens, cooking utensils, glassware and many other necessities. (228)

Although diocesan consent was given to Father Weinheimer in February of 1967 to proceed with the building of a convent, the actuality was still only a remote possibility.

The attractiveness of Florida weather in mid-winter and early spring brought many visitors from the "north" to St. Raphael's. Among these were the parents of Sister Mary Paulo and of Sister St. Bernadette, as well as IHM Congregation school supervisors, Sisters Felicitas Ryan, Sheila Reilly, Dermot (Jean) Toolan, and Eamon O'Neill.

In this initial year of IHM presence in St. Petersburg the sisters were involved in several educational events, attending the teachers' institute in Orlando, speaking at the Women's Guild meetings, attending lectures in spirituality, hosting the principals' meeting for the diocese, preparing a song and dance festival, and observing the operations of ungraded and team teaching schools in the region.

At the close of the school year, its owner was selling the temporary residence of the sisters, so the sisters were on the move again. The annals record the on-going hope of the pastor: "Suitable quarters were found at 3731 Huntington Avenue. No chapel was provided due to the restricted room. But the community was assured by the pastor that a permanent residence will be available within the next few months." (229)

The Huntington Avenue house was not in good condition, but the sisters, together with friends like Mrs. Mary Marchinko and Mrs. Agnes O'Shea, soon put it in good order. The house was closed for the summer as the three sisters left on June 14 for their summer study assignments.

The school year 1967-1968 saw the addition of Sister Maria Regina Loures to the faculty. This brought the total faculty to nine, with four IHMs and five lay teachers. Events of this year were to have their impact on the little community as the month of October brought news of the death of Bishop Joseph P. Hurley one week after his return from a visit to Rome. Until the appointment of a new bishop and the obtaining of new approvals, the building plans for the convent had to be postponed. (230)

In March 1968, another more personal loss occurred as Sister Mary Paulo decided to leave the IHM Congregation. There are never adequate words to explain the pain experienced within the community when a sister leaves. The annals make a brief statement:

Needless to say, the Sisters and parishioners were very sorry to lose such a wonderful Sister and friend, but wishing her only happiness, accepted her decision. Sister Mary Paulo made a wonderful impression on the people and children here. (231)

On March 27, 1968, His Excellency Paul F. Tanner was installed as the new bishop of St. Augustine, Florida. Sisters Paracleta (Irene) and St. Bernadette attended the ceremonies. Bishop Tanner's jurisdiction was soon to change, however, when in May 1968 Pope Paul VI divided the Diocese of St. Augustine, making St. Petersburg a new diocese with His Excellency Charles McLaughlin named as new bishop. Since Bishop McLaughlin had been the former pastor of parishes in Rocky Mount and Greensboro, North Carolina, where the IHMs were located, the sisters at St. Raphael's were happy indeed. (232)

At the close of the school year, the sisters' residence #3 was returned to its owners, and the furniture was put in storage for the summer. Since construction of the convent had not yet begun, the "pilgrim" community left for summer assignments not knowing where they would live in the fall. That a permanent convent would be an eventuality was clear, however, when Mother Beata received a telegram from Father Weinheimer on August 16, 1968, saying: "Happy to report convent contract signed today. Construction immediately." (233)

Of course, the sisters were leaving Marywood for Florida the very next day, August 17, 1968. Sister Paracleta (Irene) Gallagher, continuing principal and superior, was bringing three new sisters to St. Raphael's, namely, Sisters Grace Marie Campbell, Sue Ann Steves, and Laura Booth. Sister St. Bernadette Hamilton had been assigned to Puerto Rico. Aware that their fourth temporary residence would not be ready until August 21, the travelers enjoyed the hospitality of IHMs in Upper Marlboro, Maryland and in Rocky Mount, North Carolina enroute. Residence #4 on Dover Street was a four-bedroom home with a large room overlooking the water reserved as the chapel. The parishioners had cleaned the house, so it was ready for the arrival of the four sisters. (234)

Classes began on September 3, 1968, with over two hundred pupils. On September 6 the sisters rejoiced at having the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the chapel of the Dover Street residence.

As hurricanes were an annual natural phenomenon in Florida, the sisters seemed to accept serenely the fact that hurricane Gladys was a stormy October visitor that brought "the gradual rising of the bayou in our backyard." (235)

February was a good, warm month in Florida for visitors from the wintry north. Again, the first IHM visitors were Congregation supervisors, Sisters Felicitas, Eleanora, Sheila, and Cor Immaculatum. In March, Sisters Mary Martin O'Dea, sector superior, and Sister Coleman Nee, coordinator of apostolic works, were additional Congregation visitors.

The long-awaited completion of the convent came and the sisters made their final move on May 15, 1969. (236) This Spanish-style structure with red-tiled roof included the entry hallway and office, parlor, kitchen, dining room, laundry, storage and trunk room, chapel, and sacristy on first floor. The second floor had six bedrooms, community room, sewing room and exterior porch. All of the suggestions made to Father Weinheimer by Mother Beata three years before in March of 1966 had been included in the construction plan. (237)

By October 1969 the chapel furnishings arrived. The Mass and dedication of the convent were held on December 9, with Bishop Charles B. McLaughlin officiating. Open house for the sisters of the area was held on February 8, 1970.

All of these exciting events did not deter the sisters from their educational mission as they prepared the students at St. Raphael's for oratorical and poetry contests, a film festival, and science fair, with the resultant capturing of five prizes at the county level. The girls' basketball team also took second place in the Florida West Coast League. Students in the annual art festival won two first place trophies and thirty-two ribbons. Participating in a diocesan contest to design a letterhead for the educational bulletin, Sisters Paracleta (Irene) and Grace Marie Campbell won first and second place, respectively. (238)

In the fall 1970 Sister Paracleta (Irene), the first principal and superior at St. Raphael's was assigned as a school supervisor for the Wilmington, Delaware Diocese. Sister Sue Steves was appointed in her place at St. Raphael's, and Sister Jamesann McCue was welcomed as the fourth IHM for the school faculty. Sister Paul Joseph McArdle and Sister David Marie Scanlon, a Monroe, Michigan IHM, were in residence at St. Raphael's while teaching adult education in several centers throughout the diocese.

Father Weinheimer's silver jubilee was celebrated by the sisters and students in spring of 1970. It was a joyful prelude to the sadness they would experience in June when Father Weinheimer was transferred from St. Raphael's. His initial work in the development of the school and the construction of the convent was deeply appreciated, especially by the IHM Sisters. The new pastor assigned was Reverend Anton Dechering. (239)

The focus of the faculty of St. Raphael's School for the 1971-1972 year was on obtaining accreditation by the South States Association. With an enrollment high of 262 pupils, the support of the parish for its school was evident. Diocesan and Congregation supervisors had affirmed the quality of education being offered, and by the spring of 1972, so had the South States Association by its accreditation of St. Raphael's School. (240) The school would also be accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference in January 1973. (241) Mother Beata's praise and words of encouragement for the sisters was expressed in a letter of January 18, 1973:

My warm congratulations to each one on the full accreditation of St. Raphael's School by the Florida Catholic Conference. I am sure all--Father Dechering, parents, students, and friends--are pleased with this good word. Such unqualified approval is evidence of the fine work and cooperation of all concerned. God bless you! (242)

St. Raphael's School continued to thrive throughout Mother Beata's tenure as superior general and beyond, to 1984. Four capable principals provided excellent leadership over that time, Sisters Paracleta (Irene) Gallagher, Sue Ann Steves, Grace Marie Campbell, and Florence Ann Marino.