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parish profile
Faith Community on a Mission:     
St. John, Interlachen   

by Shannon Scruby Henderson

Interlachen Catholics celebrate 50 years as a faith community this year and yet they are faced with somewhat of an identity crisis. Officially, St. John is still a mission parish. Yet it operates independently and pays diocesan assessments like a full-fledged parish. Considering the progress they’ve made in five decades, that’s how the community prefers to see itself, notes Father Bob Napier, pastor.
With humble beginnings, the newest church for St. John was built in 1995. The parish now plans to build an educational center.
  Father Robert “Bob” Napier, pastor of St. John Parish, Interlachen.

“It’s more of a technicality,” says Father Bob. “We’re treated as a full erected parish, no matter what it says on the books. Parishioners very much ask me, ‘What’s the news?’ and ‘Well, is it done?’ I know it will be one of these days.”

In the meantime, St. John is busy taking care of business. In debt for more than $85,000 just five years ago, they are now in the clear and looking toward a new building initiative - an educational center that will house their growing religious education program, adult faith formation, and other parish needs. “Our population is changing,” notes the pastor. “We have more young families than before, especially more Hispanic families, and we expect to see that trend continue.”

Located on the southern edges of the diocese, Interlachen is in Putnam County, about 15 minutes west of Palatka. Beyond the local McDonald’s, restaurants and other amenities are conspicuously lacking. It is, says parishioner Bud Surratt, a “fiscally constrained” county with pressing needs. “In 1998, we decided, with the help of our pastor Father Jim, to start a chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul,” says Surratt, the current operations manager. “There were so many elderly poor - people on fixed incomes. We operated out of the church kitchen at first, and in 2001, built a 4,608 square-foot thrift store, food pantry and community center. Father Bob has been a tremendous supporter - both for us and other organizations that help the needy. We couldn’t do it without him and our parish.”

Father Bob has ties to St. John that stretch back to the early 1970s - before he became a priest, and in fact, before he became a Catholic. “At that time in my life, I was really searching for answers in faith,” he recalls. “I fell in with a Catholic family here. I would see the mom go to church every morning. From my Protestant background, that’s pretty unusual. So one morning, I just followed her to Mass and basically, never stopped.”

A view of the interior of St. John’s. The faith community is very active and has 187 registered families.

He sees the strength of a small parish with close, family-like connections. So do parishioners CJ and Ashley Myers, who moved to Interlachen in 2005. “People at church are honestly interested in your well-being,” says Ashley. “We gaggle in there with three kids, and if the baby makes a noise, nobody gives you a dirty look. On the other hand, if you miss, people notice. The next time they see you, they want to know if you’re OK and what they can do to help. We’ve had more people over here than anyplace else we’ve lived,” adds this home-schooling mom. “You really feel like they’re family.”

Part of the reason people stay connected, says Nicosia, is that Father Bob has helped build participation through parish ministries. “He’s a reformer,” she says. “He tries to do a lot without a lot of capital. That means pulling people in to help.” Though only 187 families strong (plus a small “snowbird” population each winter), the faith community has a parish council, a ladies guild, Knights of Columbus, RCIA, a music ministry, religious education and adult faith formation, respect life, stewardship ministry, youth ministry, as well as altar servers, eucharistic ministers and ushers. “The bishop was amazed when he saw the participation at his pastoral visit here,” says Father Bob. Adds Nicosia: “It’s been great to watch, especially for those who were around to see it all start from nothing. It’s a little church, not large, but it’s been a home for us.”

St. John, Interlachen at a Glance
St. John, Interlachen
1200 State Road 20
Interlachen, FL 32148

Pastor: Rev. Robert Napier
Parishioners: 187 registered families

The story of St. John Catholic Church is one of faith, sacrifice and determination by a group of Catholics far from diocesan growth centers. “When we came to Interlachen, we joined a group of just 10 or 15 Catholics who went to Mass in a garage,” reports founding member Anna Nicosia. “People wanted a church, but that was years away.”

From 1958 till the mid-1960s, priests from St. Monica in Palatka and later, St. Patrick in Gainesville, made weekly visits. The first church was constructed in 1966, built on land purchased with a surprise donation of $10,000. Funds for the building came from pledges, gifts and “countless cookouts and fundraisers,” reports Nicosia.

St. John’s first resident priest, Msgr. Thomas A. O’Reilly, arrived from Wisconsin in 1970. He was succeeded by Father John Heerey in 1983. The parish dedicated a new church on Feb. 5, 1995. Father James O’Neal became pastor in 1997, followed by Father Robert (Bob) Napier in 2002.

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