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Weathering the Storm
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Palm Coast    

by Shannon Scruby Henderson

When Father Jim May took over as pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in July 2008, it was a homecoming of sorts. “This is where I started out when I arrived in Florida in 1985,” he says. “I became involved in the RCIA, and as a cantor and choir member. When I decided to become a priest, the pastor assisted, the parish sent me off with their prayers and helped support me the whole time I was in seminary.”

Designed by Architect Rick Swisher of Winter Park, Fla., the exterior of the church reflects a strong Spanish Renaissance influence with a contemporary flair. The church seats 1,500 and was dedicated on Jan. 22, 1994 by Bishop John J. Snyder.1

  The parish is named after St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American saint canonized on Sept. 14, 1975.

During the years he was away, “Mother Seton” grew into the largest parish in the diocese, with a congregation that currently tops 12,000 members and registers between five and 13 families a week.

Eleanor Maidhof, a parishioner since 1980, notes that with growth has come diversity. “The parish has evolved, and for the better,” she says. “Today, we’re like the United Nations, with transplants from many cities and states and many different nationalities. All ages, too. When I came here, they used to call me ‘the kid’ because at 39, I was one of the youngest in the parish. But today I think retirees are maybe less than 50 percent.”

The new pastor felt an immediate challenge to promote a sense of unity and purpose among his wide-ranging population. “It’s so easy to get lost when you’re this big,” says Father Jim. “So one of the things I’ve done, following the bishop’s lead, was to introduce ‘town hall meetings.’ We’ve had our first, and it was wonderful. I asked people about their vision for the parish. A man who is a jack-of-all-trades even came forward to start an all-volunteer maintenance ministry. Because the response was so positive, we decided to schedule a meeting every three months. Everyone wants to feel needed. A lot of unexpected things can happen when you start talking.”

The parish’s other challenges - a heavy debt load and declining school enrollment - will be harder to solve. Faced with a deficit of $3.5 million when he became chair of the finance committee and capital campaign, Cliff Lewis is helping to steer the parish through turbulent times.

“The economy of Palm Coast is based on real estate and construction, and in a downturn like this, people are bound to have money problems,” he says. “There are very few jobs locally, which makes recovery harder. Also, we overestimated the affluence of the parish. When Palm Coast started, it was for retirees. He says the parish is growing with younger families who need more services but may have less to donate.

“The parish is not as rich as we believed,” says Cliff. It is, according to Cliff, a generous and dedicated group. “In the midst of all the financial problems,” says Cliff, “our people are making sacrifices. They are staying faithful to their pledges made when our capital campaign began last March. In less than a year, we’ve paid down $700,000 of our debt and raised almost $1.9 million total.”

At the same time, requests for assistance are on the rise. “Many people moved down here to survive on their investments, which have suffered with the stock market,” says Father Jim. “And we’re seeing a lot of foreclosures, especially among young people.”

The parish’s outreach ministry tries to help families in crisis. “Unemployment recently has pushed requests up. We’re seeing an average of 100 people per week,” says one of the ministry’s leaders, Anna Coleman. “People need food or assistance with utilities, rent and pharmacy bills. If we can help them, we will.”

  Once inside the main body of the church the worshiper's attention is drawn to the sanctuary, altar, Holy of Holies and the Tabernacle. The nave over the altar reaches to a height of six stories.

Father Jim remains hopeful for the future in a community marked by such a loving spirit. “As sad as it is right now, I think the situation will bring people closer. What makes this a wonderful parish is the way people work together and look out for the needs of others. They listen to each other, and they care.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Palm Coast
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, est. 1979
4600 Belle Terre Parkway
Palm Coast, FL 32164

Pastor: Rev. James May

Parochial Vicars:
Rev. Tim Cusick, SS
Rev. Christopher Liguori

Deacon James Casapulla
Deacon John Holmes
Deacon Doug Nullet

In 1974, Father Thomas Cody established a mission for the 70 or so Catholics in east Flagler County. Ten years later, fueled by the success of ITT Corporation’s Palm Coast development - one of the largest planned communities in the nation - St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish had grown to more than 700 families. Their first church was dedicated in 1979; their magnificent permanent church replaced it in 1994. The parish school opened five years later. Pastors since Father Cody have included Father Caesar Russo, Father Fred Parke, Father Mark Waters and Father James May.

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