| By Brittany DeHaan

A Summer Pilgrimage

Embark on a pilgrimage by stepping out of your normal routine and into a sacred environment. Pilgrimages are a powerful way to inspire faith whether by walking in the footsteps of Jesus in the Holy Land, visiting tombs of saints, or visiting ancient churches. 

In the western counties of Florida, Catholicism has been prevalent for close to 500 years and has been home to missionaries, martyrs, and those seeking religious freedom. 

In 2011, Father Len Plazewski, Pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church and the Diocese of St. Petersburg Historian, compiled a regional pilgrimage guide featuring 25 religious sites that highlight Florida’s Catholic history throughout the five counties of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. We are sharing information about five sites from this pilgrimage guide, one from each county.

Pinellas County: Site of Narváez Landing

Jungle Prada de Navaez Park

8398 Elbow Lane North, St. Petersburg

This spot marks the location where Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez arrived in 1528 with five ships and 600 men, including eight diocesan and five Franciscan priests. One of them was Father Juan Xuarez, O.F.M., who had been named Bishop of Florida. Father Xuarez celebrated Florida’s first Mass on Easter, April 16, 1528. After ten days and many violent encounters with native peoples, Narváez headed north with 300 men, five of whom were priests. Eight years later, a mere four survivors made it to Mexico. Today, the park offers scenic views of Boca Ciega Bay and boat ramps for residents to enjoy. For more information, visit www.stpeteparksrec.org/junglepradapark.

Hernando County: St. Stanislaus Chapel

14249 Citrus Way, Brooksville

In 1913, a group of Polish farmers moved to northern Hernando County, and by 1917, they had built a chapel. A fire destroyed the first church in 1929, and it was replaced with the present church — an authentic Old Florida clapboard church. Many adversities caused the settlement to disband, but many of the early Catholics are buried in the cemetery. Mass is still celebrated here on All Souls Day annually. The building is used about 6 to 8 times per year for special Masses and other services for the Polish-speaking community that gathers regularly at St. Anthony the Abbot, in Brooksville.

Hillsborough County: Sacred Heart Catholic Church

509 N Florida Ave, Tampa

The “ecclesiastic jewel of Florida’s West Coast,” Sacred Heart Catholic Church has roots reaching back to Tampa’s pioneer days. The current church began construction in 1898 under the guidance of Jesuits who were asked to steward the parish following a Yellow Fever outbreak that claimed the lives of their diocesan predecessors. The Romanesque church, with Gothic and Byzantine influences, is largely unchanged since its 1905 dedication, including 18 stained glass windows designed by the Mayer Company of Munich, Germany, a 135-foot dome, solid oak pews and doors, porcelain tile, and an altar made of Italian Carrara marble. Following the centennial anniversary in 2005, stewardship of the parish was transferred to the Franciscans. For more information, visit sacredheartfla.org.

Pasco County: Saint Leo Abbey

33601 County Rd 52, St. Leo

The Benedictine Abbey was founded in 1889, but the church wasn’t built and consecrated until January 29, 1948. Construction began in 1936 but was often delayed due to World War II and the need to raise funds for the building of the Abbey Church.

The Abbey’s Church of the Holy Cross has a majestic marble crucifix modeled after the Shroud of Turin. Early on, the monks established an all-boys prep school, which became the Catholic College in the 1960s and is now known as Saint Leo University. For more information, visit saintleoabbey.org.

Citrus County: St. Benedict

455 S Suncoast Blvd, Crystal River

Benedictine priests from Saint Leo Abbey have cared for Catholics in Citrus County since the late 19th century. A small concrete block chapel honoring St. Benedict was built in 1953. By the mid-1970s, the parish had outgrown it and relocated three miles south to its present location. A new church, built in the shape of a Greek cross with a fresco of St. Benedict in the dome, was dedicated in 1981. The parish hall, which was the church for six years, houses a series of paintings depicting the parish’s vast history. For more information, visit stbenedictcrystalriver.org.

Learn More:

Read about all the pilgrimage sites in the brochure titled, “Catholic Driving Pilgrimage: 25 Tampa Bay Religious Sites.” Visit dosp.org/office-of-archives-and-records

To learn about group pilgrimages led by local priests, visit: dosp.org/pastoralbulletin/pilgrimages