HISTORY OF ST. PAUL CATHOLIC COMMUNITY
Beginning in August 1915, Father J. J. O’Riordan of Sanford made regular trips to Fruitland Park to hold Mass in the summer cottage of Mr. and Mrs. Martell of St. Joseph, Michigan. A church in Fruitland Park was completed in 1921 and the first Mass celebrated on Thanksgiving Day. The Fruitland Park church held the official status of mission and was never dedicated due to the inability of the Bishop of St. Augustine to travel to the far-flung points of his diocese.
In 1949 Father William O’Farrell, pastor of the mission, headed the parish’s transaction of purchasing land in Leesburg along Sunshine Avenue for the purpose of building a larger church. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on Sunday, February 18, 1951, with Father George Cummings as celebrant. On March 2, 1952, Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley of St. Augustine officiated at the solemn dedication.
The success and growth of the Leesburg church warranted the addition of a parochial school. The two-story building was completed in 1961 in time for a September opening. Within two years the original staff was enriched by the acquisition of three nuns: Sisters Clelia, Mary Magdalene, and Thaddeus. More grades were opened up, and because the nuns were in such short supply, St. Paul’s secured the services of more lay teachers to instruct a total of eight grades. In 1969, however, problems with funding and administration forced the school’s closure.
In the early 1970’s it was evident that more space was needed to accommodate the Catholic community and winter visitors. In 1975, serious plans had shaped up for a new church.
Work began in November 1976 following the groundbreaking ceremonies, which were held on October 31, 1976. In November of 1977, the finished sanctuary was there for all to see.
Father J. Keith Symons, later Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee and the Diocese of Palm Beach, had served as pastor of St. Paul’s. The late Fr. William Killion served St. Paul for numerous years and later returned to the area to St. Paul’s Mission parish, to be the first pastor of St. Timothy’s in Lady Lake.
In 1988, before an extensive renovation of the present church was finished, the parish was stunned by the sudden death of its Pastor, Fr. Philip Stegeman.
During St. Paul’s long history, the Parish of St. Lawrence in Bushnell, and the Parish of St. Timothy’s in Lady Lake were established through St. Paul’s missionary endeavors.
The history of the Catholic Community of St. Paul dates back to 1954 – over 50 years ago. Rooted in faith and a small community feel, our parish today is an increasingly active, vibrant and growing community comprised of over 2,600 households. Led by a dedicated pastor and a strong corps of lay leaders and volunteers, there is an increasing number of ways that people of all ages and backgrounds are participating in the spiritual, educational, social and pastoral care ministries of our parish. So while faces and facilities may have changed and may continue to change over the years, the most constant and critical attributes of St. Paul have and will continue to remain the same, namely, our commitment to Christ, to one another and to the betterment of our Catholic and local communities.