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Duty Under Fire
Road to Financial Freedom

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parish profile
St. John the Baptist
celebrating 100 years in Crescent City
By Shannon Scrubby-Henderson

The tiny St. John Chapel was built in 1910 by Father Patrick Barry and served as a mission of St. Monica Parish in Palatka. The chapel is located in downtown Crescent City with morning Mass celebrated there by Father Jim May three days a week..


The patron saint of St. John the Baptist Parish is depicted in the stained glass that beautifully illuminates the entrance to the main church. The church and parish hall were built in 1960 and renovated in 1990.

Dotted with small farms, sparkling lakes and sprawling mobile home parks, the secluded community of Crescent City on the southern boundary of rural Putnam County is known by two memorable slogans. For sportsmen, it is famous as “The Bass Fishing Capital of the World.” For snowbirds from the north and retirees seeking a quiet, affordable Florida lifestyle, it is “The Florida Town that Time Forgot.” Somewhat surprisingly - in an area with a fluctuating, seasonal population, a chronic shortage of jobs and young families, and a preponderance of Protestant churches - Crescent City is also home to one of the oldest faith communities in the Diocese of Saint Augustine.

On June 24, St. John the Baptist Parish marked its 100th anniversary. It was a time to reflect on the parish’s colorful history, starting with the tiny but determined clan of founding families and a future bishop of Florida who supported them in their faith. It was also an opportunity to celebrate the future of a faith community that today is not only surviving, but also thriving. “This used to be just a little country church,” comments Father James May (known fondly in Crescent City as “Father Jim”). “But in recent years, we’ve grown from 350 families to more than 500.”

Parishioners Dorothy and Louis Guenther are among the sizeable group of transplants from the North who discovered Crescent City as tourists and moved in permanently after they retired. A recent influx of newcomers from the hurricane belt in central and south Florida has contributed to swelling parish ranks. Another segment of growth is a large Hispanic contingency, many of them drawn to the area by agricultural work. Serving this population, now about 25 percent of the parish, is a special challenge. Father Jim, a native of Philadelphia who speaks only English, relies on Father Andy Mitera from Palm Coast on Sundays - and volunteer interpreters the rest of the week. Long-time parishioner Anne Hughes participates in a Catholic Charities-sponsored program that tutors farm workers’ children after school each week. “Our biggest challenge as a parish, I think, is to make the Hispanics feel welcome. They understand our smiles and nods, but it will take the young people to bring us all together. That is why we try tto help them with their reading. In the meantime, they are lovable people and hugs have a way of making friends,” she says.

The generosity of Father Jim’s flock makes it possible to offer outreach on other levels, too. “One man who came from the fern farms couldn’t read and didn’t even know how to tell time,” remembers Father Jim. “But he would walk almost two miles to learn about the sacraments. I wanted to get a bike for him to make his life a little easier. I had no more spoken the words than someone jumped in to make it happen. I’ve been very lucky in that way.”

For his parishioners, the luck seems to be all on their side. “Father has made so many positive changes,” says Dorothy Guenther, noting the upgrades to the church, church hall and grounds accomplished since his arrival four years ago. “We all love his homilies, and his friendliness has a way of opening doors, not only in the parish, but in the community.” Anne Hughes appreciates her pastor’s “open heart, mind and love and concern for everyone - and oh, yes, a sense of humor that never stops. God knew what he was doing when he touched him,” she says.

The Guenthers have helped Father Jim in his mission to beautify church grounds. At the new rose garden outside the downtown chapel, the pastor often greets early arrivals at daily Mass with a garden hose in hand - meanwhile, observes Anne Hughes, waving to non-Catholic friends who drive by and blow their horns at him. “I think it’s really important when people come to Mass that they find a church that looks like it’s been cared for,” he says. To that end, he takes a lead role in maintaining parish grounds, most recently weeding and laying mulch in preparation of the anniversary celebration.

“In a small parish, you don’t have the manpower. We don’t have a secretary, for example, and for a while, I was even cutting the grass myself,” he says. “On the other hand, you do have a hometown, friendly parish with a lot of heart.” He notes with pleasure the assistance he receives from people with knowledge and connections in the community, observing that he is continually impressed by the generosity of his flock, “A new parishioner asked me, “Do you have a building fund?” I told him about our needs, and he sent me $5,000 just like that. It amazes me what people will do when they’re on fire to see the church grow.”

Father Jim, a “second-career vocation” who was ordained just eight years ago, is enthusiastic about his new vocation. “I always wanted to be a priest,” he says. “I wrote it down on a piece of paper when I was 12 years old. But it took a long time to act on my promise to God. My feeling is that I have a lot of work to do to catch up. I really love my parishioners and my priesthood.”

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St. John the Baptist parish at a glance
St. John the Baptist Parish
2725 Highway 17 South
Crescent City, FL 32112
(386) 698-2055

Pastor: Father James May
Parishioners: 500 registered families

The tiny mission church that served as St. John the Baptist Parish’s first official home was erected on Crescent City’s Main Street in 1910 by Father Patrick Barry (later to become Bishop Barry). For a number of years prior, Father Barry had ministered to the Catholic families of the area, visiting several times a year to say Mass in private homes.

Financing was aided by wealthy Catholics from the North, whose donations to Florida “missions” (a celebrated cause during the first half of the 20th century), helped purchase land, pews and Stations of the Cross. Mass was celebrated about once a month at the new St. John the Baptist church, though it wasn’t until 1932 that a regular Sunday Mass was established.

By 1959, after growth had overwhelmed the 90-seat structure, Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley purchased a 29-acre campus on the outskirts of town. A new church and parish hall were dedicated in 1960. In 1989, the original church, its baptismal font and statuary were rescued from demolition and restored by the Miller family for the town of Crescent City. It is still used weekdays for daily Mass. St. John the Baptist pastors have included Fathers Burt Maher, Michael Kelly, Antonio Leon, Tom Sullivan, John Gillespie and Brian Eburn.