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St. Paul
A historic church at the heart of Riverside 

by Shannon Scruby Henderson

Last December, the stained glass windows and painted ceiling of St. Paul’s were a highlight of the Riverside Association of Preservation (RAP) luminaria celebration in Jacksonville’s Riverside-Avondale district. “People came from all over for our church tour,” says parishioner Kathleen Hugo. “We brought in lights from Alltel Stadium to illuminate the windows. It was so successful that we’ll do it again this year.”

Father Tom Sullivan delights in teaching students religion in grades 6th, 7th and 8th four days a week. From left (front): Jane Hepler, Jessica Leando, Devyn DeGuzman. From left (back): Ben Burnett, Ben Gushanas, Father Tom, Alyssa Yuvienco and Emily Stone.
  Built of yellow brick with limestone trim, St. Paul’s Mediterranean Revival style church was designed by architect Gerald Barry, Bishop Patrick Barry’s nephew from Chicago. Stained glass windows are by the Rambusch Decorating Company of New York.

In an area dedicated to preserving the past, this parish is noteworthy. “Even our rectory is important,” says parishioner Sydney Simmons of the 1923 building that now doubles as parish house. “Architect Bill Leuthold, a local authority, called it one of the best examples of Mediterranean Revival he’s ever seen.”

Father Thomas Sullivan, pastor since 1983, has rallied his “wonderful and talented” parishioners to preserve and protect what they all value. “My management style is to empower people. When I came, parish leaders wanted to know, ‘Will we be allowed to make decisions?’ I set them free to make things happen.”

Faced with daunting challenges - an estimated $2 million in facilities repairs, a dwindling church population, and plummeting school enrollment - the parish dug in. Today, there is much to celebrate. “The church is in the best condition since anyone can remember,” says Sydney, who grew up at St. Paul. “Father Sullivan has been very attentive,” he notes. Among the improvements: replacing the leading and sealing the stained glass windows, roof repairs, a landscaping project led by Holy Ghost Father James Corry, a new air conditioning system, and preservation of the painted ceiling and walls.

“We started with the church roof, then paid a preservation expert to create a plan for the whole campus,” says Kathleen Hugo, who has led the charge to procure state matching grants. Two grants of $50,000 have already been secured; she will next apply for a $400,000 grant.

The resurgence of the parish school is another pride point. Following a period in the late 1990s when numbers were so low that the school considered closing, enrollment is currently at capacity. “It’s the highest number we’ve ever had,” says school board chair Kelly Corrigan Wood. “We’ve also become a sports powerhouse for the first time in school history!” She credits parish leadership: “If it hadn’t been for Father Sullivan in the low times, things might have taken a completely different path,” she says. “He’s always been a cheerleader for the kids.” In fact, for many years, the pastor has worked in the school, teaching religion four days a week in grades six through eight. “My understanding is he’s the only pastor in the diocese that does this,” notes Kathleen. “The children love him.”

The interior of St. Paul Church is beautiful. The vaulted ceiling, hand painted by artist Hugo Olhms, features stars and Christian symbols: a grapevine, a pelican plucking her breast to feed her young, and the words Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus.

By Jacksonville standards, the parish is small in numbers. But revitalization of surrounding areas is leading growth. “We are reaping the benefits,” notes Kathleen. “The past two years, our first Communion classes have been the largest in 30 years.

“We have a lot of very old families, and now, young families, too,” adds Sydney, commenting on the recent changes in parish demographics. “A lot of people walk to church. When your church is right in your neighborhood, it’s inevitable that you take an interest.”

St. Paul Parish at a glance
St. Paul Parish, est. 1923
2609 Park Street
Jacksonville, FL 32204

Pastor: Rev. Thomas K. Sullivan
Parochial Vicar: Rev. James Corry, CSSp
Parishioners: 1,169 registered parishioners
School: 272 students, PreK-3 through 8
Principal: John C. Lippincott

The history of St. Paul Parish really begins with the “Great Fire” of 1901, an event that triggered rapid growth west of downtown. In 1922, new bishop Patrick Barry directed his brother, Father William Barry, to build a church in Riverside.

A multi-purpose building with a church on the first floor was completed in 1923. In September, 120 children started classes at the new school on the second floor. The Sisters of St. Joseph moved into the third floor until their convent was built next door. From 1924 to 1952 - the year Bishop Kenny High School opened - St. Paul also offered high school classes. The grade school, which currently occupies the entire multi-purpose building and the first floor of the convent, is Jacksonville’s oldest continuously operating Catholic school.

St. Paul’s permanent church was completed in 1940. Pastors who succeeded Father William Barry include Msgr. Denis Lyons, Msgr. Patrick E. Nolan, Father Michael J. Kelly, and since 1983, Father Thomas Sullivan who will retire as pastor Sept. 30, 2007.

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