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 | Brittany DeHaan

"An Open Heart for Everybody"

St. Joseph Catholic Church Has a Long History of Welcoming Immigrants

Did you know there is a church in Tampa that was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the Spanish-American War? 

St. Joseph Catholic Church was built to serve the large factory-worker and immigrant population of West Tampa and it continues to share the love of Christ with all people in need.

The church and school were both established in 1896. Since its inception, they have welcomed members of the community, including immigrants and the poor.

“The church was created for the immigrants. The church originally served a Spanish, Italian and Cuban population and we still do. That’s a great blessing for us,” explained Father Nelson Restrepo, the pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church who celebrates Mass in both English and Spanish.

The high concentration of Hispanics and a large population of people living in poverty are still groups that the church seeks to serve.

“Ninety-five percent of the parish population is Hispanic. We’re able to serve everyone including the poor through the sacraments, visiting the sick, counseling, and other ways to help them to discover the grace of God. I think that we have been given a great opportunity to give God to others,” said Father Restrepo.

In the 1920s, Father Luis Conde, a Salesian priest and the first bilingual priest in West Tampa, worked to renew the community’s faith by speaking their native language.

“The church has really been that outreach for the West Tampa community. I've seen the Spanish congregation grow leaps and bounds over the years because it's been inviting to the people who speak Spanish and who are looking for a parish where they can have that,” said parishioner Joe Baker who has been a member of the parish for the last 41 years.

The family-like atmosphere is also an important aspect of the parish and has contributed to its longevity.

“We love the warmth of the parish. You walk in and you immediately feel comfortable. It's just a real close community that feels like family. We have nine children who all attended St. Joseph Catholic School, and they feel like the parish is home. We get together for holidays and they all come with us to Mass. It’s always been our home,” said Baker.

St. Joseph Catholic Church draws in a congregation that extends beyond the parish boundaries. 

“We served everyone in West Tampa at the beginning. Now, it’s the whole diocese. Many of ourparishioners started here, then moved to a new area but are still coming for Mass,” explained Father Restrepo.

“We are welcoming anytime people come in. That is the reason for the church. It’s an open heart for everybody."

On the 19th of every month, the parish comes together for a Mass to celebrate St. Joseph. This May, it will be extra special. On May 19th, they are concluding their year-long celebration of the 120th anniversary of the founding of the parish. The celebration is set to feature a parish picnic, music, live entertainment, activities for children, a raffle, and more. 

“I think it speaks to the priests and the people of the parish that it has stayed so strong. It’s really a testament to the fact that this parish is so necessary for our community,” Baker added.