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St. Mary, Korona
Colorful past is backdrop to exciting new chapter in history

by Shannon Scruby Henderson

In recent years, an influx of Catholic retirees from the Northeast and Midwest has fueled the growth of Flagler County mega parishes like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Palm Coast and Santa Maria del Mar in Flagler Beach. The seeds of faith were planted in the area almost a century ago by another group of Midwestern transplants - in this case, a small group of Polish Catholics who answered an ad that promised $35-per-acre of Florida farmland. Their legacy is St. Mary Catholic Church, the Mother Parish of every other Catholic Church in Flagler County: St. Stephen in Bunnell, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Santa Maria del Mar. The 1914 church, a 65-seat wooden structure with a relic set in marble in the altar, remains unchanged to this day. It is used for Eucharistic Adoration on Fridays.

Above is the original St. Mary, Queen of Poland Catholic Church that was built in 1914. It is used today for Eucharistic Adoration on Fridays.
  Located between the old church and the new church is a beautiful Shrine to St. Christopher that was erected in 1935 by Redemptorist Father C. Hoffman.

Not very long ago, decreasing population and a shortage of diocesan priests resulted in a change of status for St. Mary. “We became a mission of Santa Maria del Mar, which is unusual because we really started Santa Maria del Mar,” recalls longtime St. Mary’s parishioner Gerard Slovak. Circumstances intervened to return the faith community to full-fledged parish standing. In the first place, rapid growth at nearby retirement communities contributed to a population spike at St. Mary’s. There was also the impact of nearby St. Joseph Carmelite Monastery, founded by Polish Father Joseph Zawada in 1988. Gradually, the two Catholic communities became intertwined: Carmelite Fathers Zawada, Slawomir Podsiedlik , Artur Chojda and Brother Anthony Gemmato from the monastery were pulled into parish work, while parishioners gravitated to weekday Masses at St. Joseph Monastery. In 2003, Bishop Victor Galeone asked Father Slawomir to make his affiliation with St. Mary official. Today, he serves as both prior for the monastery and pastor of St. Mary Parish.

“As Carmelites, there’s a big challenge for us,” says Father Slawomir. “We are grateful to Bishop Victor, who gave us the opportunity to work with fantastic people at St. Mary. At the same time, we must work hard to maintain our prayer life, which is at the heart of Carmelite spirituality. We try to be here with the people, extending the message about prayer beyond our monastery. It is the challenge of our times. Because of the lack of vocations, many in our order - in Belaruse, Siberia, Norway, Germany and the United States - also serve as pastors.”

Two thriving faith communities in one
The parish’s unique past is reflected in the dual nature of its modern congregation. “Nowadays, the core of St. Mary’s is predominantly retirees, most of them from the North,” notes Karen Clark, the parish’s administrative assistant. Another group, the Polish-American contingency, includes Catholics who travel from outside of parish boundaries to attend Mass in Polish (Sundays at 11:30 a.m. at St. Mary; 9 a.m. on Thursdays at St. Joseph Monastery) and interact with fellow Polish Catholics. Both the English and Polish language Masses are typically packed with visitors. “People travel miles to hear Father Slawomir’s homilies, whether in English or Polish,” says Karen.

A view of the altar in the new church, which also serves as a multi-purpose building. Polish Catholics throughout the area gather each week for Mass and fellowship.

A parish deeply blessed
Baptized at St. Mary’s in 1938, Gerard Slovak remembers serving Mass in the 1940s and 50s in the small wooden church that was heated with a wood-burning stove. In those days of plentiful altar boys, he never imagined he would still be ringing bells on the altar nearly seven decades later. “Our other altar ‘boys’ tend to be over 70 these days,” he comments. “Since I’m not quite there yet, I’m not sure I should be considered old enough to serve!”

  Carmelite Father Slawomir Podsiedlik is the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Korona.

Youth may be in scarce supply, yet the parish remains a vibrant, welcoming community to all. “Our parish is unique and special,” says Mary Araya, director of religious education. “Father is such an inspiring speaker, and our connection with the monastery is very enriching. There is a full spiritual life here. When Bishop Galeone came for his pastoral visit a year ago, he sent the Women’s Club a book called Treasures Uncovered, the Parables of Jesus that began a faith-sharing Bible study. Now we have about six groups of people involved. It’s really blossomed.

St. Mary Parish at a glance
St. Mary Parish
89 St. Mary’s Place
Korona, FL 32110
(386) 437-5098

Pastor: Father Slawomir Podsiedlik, OCD
500 registered families

The original St. Mary, Queen of Poland Church dates back to 1914, the same year 35 Polish-American families and their priest, Father Andrew Baczyk, put down roots in what was then a mosquito-ridden, poorly drained patch of land on the outer perimeter of Volusia County (three years later, it was transferred to Flagler County). In the face of many hardships - and through many transitions - this pioneer community dug in and made a go of it. Those who stayed formed the nucleus of a faith community that Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley praised in a 1964 letter, commending them as a group, “who for a half century have held the line of the faith in Flagler County and have left a Christian imprint here which can never be effaced.”

During its 93-year history, the faith community has been nurtured by a succession of priests: Father Baczyk, Father Radka of Titusville, the Redemptorist Fathers of New Smyrna Beach, (who administered the parish from about 1933 to 1954), Fathers Diego Conesa, Antonio Leon, Tom Cody, Roland Julien, Walter Bayer, Anthony Sebra, John O’Flaherty, John Tetlow and currently, Carmelite Father Slawomir Podsiedlik.

Today, Sunday Mass is held in the parish’s multi-purpose building. Parishioners can also attend Mass seven days a week at the St. Joseph Monastery just up the road.

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