In the early 1920's the families of S. J. Thibodeaux, A.A. Thibodeaux, and F.X. Legere moved to Canal Point, Florida. During this time there were no roads, all the needs of the community were transported by boat, even the lumber to build their homes. These families missed their church so they corresponded with Father Breslin of St. Ann's Church in West Palm Beach and asked if he could come to celebrate Mass in their homes. Father Breslin came as often as he could, making the trip by boat, either commercial, or if his luck was good, a friend loaned him a small yacht.
The first Mass was celebrated in 1922 in the home of S. J. Thibodeaux on an altar constructed by Mr. Thibodeaux. There were seven adults and seven children attending. Frank O'Connell was the seventh adult.When Conner's Highway was completed in 1924 the congregation had grown to thirty. Father Gabriel from Fort Pierce came to celebrate the Mass. His successor, Father Michael Beerhalter, assumed the duties in 1927.More room was needed so Mr. S. 3. Thibodeaux built a small church on his property, furnishing all the materials and labor himself. The building was 12 ft. by 25 ft. Mr. Thibodeaux also built the altar and pews. Father Gabriel would bring the linens, relic and stone each time he came. He also brought a statue of the Sacred Heart which he later gave to Mrs. Thibodeaux. The 1928 hurricane demolished the building but the statue and altar were untouched.
After the Disaster
After the 1928 Hurricane, Mass was celebrated in the home of Stephen Solick, Sr.In September of 1929, Mr. & Mrs. Richard Gibbens moved to Canal Point to work with the U. S. Department of Agriculture. From this time on Mass was celebrated regularly in their homes with Fr. Francis Finnegan of Clewiston the celebrant.The Mass schedule was three weeks at ten o'clock and one week at seven o'clock.On Communion Sunday, Father came Saturday night so the congregation could go to confession. The confessional was the dining room with the priest seated in a Windsor rocker by the front window and the confessee kneeling on a pillow at his side.The Gibbens had a large living room which was used for the Mass. Chairs from the offices and lab were moved in and this was enough to seat the small congregation since many families had moved after the hurricane. A large drawing board placed on a radio console served as the altar. Mrs. Gibbens did the linens and vestments by hand. Mr. Gibbens served as altar boy.In April of 1932, a meeting was held to organize committees for the purpose of building a church in the Canal Point - Pahokee area.
The church was to be known as St. Jude because they thought if it was ever built they would have accomplished the impossible, since it was the years of the great depression and the congregation was so small.A building committee composed of John Hanlon,Richard Gibbons, Sidney Chrochet, Stephen Solick, J. L. Kerr, A. R. Kelley and T. Clements, was formed.A tract of land with 200 ft. frontage on Lake Shore Drive (known as the Wilder-Freeman tract) was donated by Louis T. Freeman of Cincinnati, Ohio.Mr. George Hillenbrand of Miami offered a very generous donation if the church would be called St. Mary's. It was decided to change the name. Col. E. R. Bradley of Palm Beach also gave a considerable donation. Donations from the merchants, townspeople and parishioner of $1,385.00 were reported by George Meade, Chairman of the Finance Committee.A nephew of Bishop Barry of St. Augustine, who was an architect specializing in church architecture, drew the plans and scaled the church.The plans called for a wood stucco building of Gothic design with art glass windows, seating 140.John Pickett surveyed the land. M.F. George of Canal Point was given the contract to build. There was only one paid plasterer painter and carpenter. The rest of the work was done by the parishoners.George Meade donated all the plumbing and labor. Charles and Joe Stebel installed the electricity, donating the labor.
The Solick Brothers
The Solick brothers, Steve, John, George, Joe and Bernard, did most of the plastering and painting. Pete Martin donated half of his pay. Hugo Boe was a part-time paid worker with his friend, Al Huskey, showing up from time to time to lend a hand. All other members of the church donated equipment and labor when needed.Construction began June 20, 1933, with shell of the church completed August 1, 1933. Interior work and furnishing took many more months.The altar, bell, stained glass windows and stations were given by St. Ann's in West Palm Beach. The pews were made by Flory and Crouch of West Palm Beach with an artisan from Alsace-Lorraine doing the carving. One of the statues was donated by the Roy Pepper family. The other was either donated by 3. L. Kerr (who was a jeweler) or he took up donations for it.On December 14, 1933, St. Mary's was opened at 10 o'clock, services consisting of the blessing of the church, High Mass and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrement. The Gregorian "Missa de Angelis" was sung by a choir from West Palm Beach.On March 11, 1934, the church was dedicated with ceremonies being led by the Most Reverend Patrick Barry, D.D. Bishop of St. Augustine.The services began with blessing of the church at 10 A.M., High Mass followed by "Coram Episcopo". Bishop Barry addressed the congregation followed by benediction. Gounod's beautiful Mass in "Gin' was sung by a selected choir from West Palm Beach.An organ had to be brought in for the occasion. A year or so later a reconditioned pump organ
was donated by a friend from West Palm Beach. Mrs. Vernon Dexter, then a young high school student, was the first organist. Years later an electric organ was acquired with Marie Gabaldon playing. St. Mary's was a mission of St. Margaret's, Clewiston; therefore, many communions and confirmations were in Clewiston. If the priest needed assistance, it usually came from St. Leo Abbey in St. Leo, Florida
The First Holy Ceremonies
The first baptism to be performed inSt. Mary's was Gail Veronica Gibbens, on October 15,1933. This was before the church was completed After completion, the first was Catherine Ruth Freidheim. The first marriage was Louis Vertonunen and Antoinette Verhulst on December 28, 1934. The first funeral was Mrs.C. Verhulst on September 27, 1944.
One of the first communions was in 1942 when Rev. Father Timothy Geary gave communion to Barbara Vertommen and Carney Wilder of Pahokee, Ester Freidheim of Belle Glade and Debris Yan of South Bay.
In the Early Years
In the early years of the church there were no young boys to take over altar boy duties, so L. and W. Pepper helped serve Mass. While Rev. Father Peter Reilly was pastor, we had two altar boys who lived in Belle Glade, namely, Ronnie Cameron and Joe (Buddy) Freidheim. For many years George Meade paid the light and water bills as well as caring for the lawn. Later the job was taken over by F.M. Shaugnessy.
Still later the bills were paid by the church and the Altar Society assumed the responsibility of the lawn.
In 1935 an Altar Society was formed through the efforts and hard work of Mrs. Peggy Pike and Arleen Krumseig.
The group was composed of women from Belle Glade and Pahokee with meetings being held in their homes. The first meeting was held at the home of Mrs. Louis Vertommen with four attending. Mrs. Bessie Bass was elected the first president. The group has always been rather small but the ladies have always worked very hard and made many repairs and improvements to the church. One of the first was paying to have the sidewalks laid. Over the years some of the larger undertakings have been providing carpets, gas heaters, fans, repairs to the roof, Christmas Crib, Processional Cross, Lectern, Missal and stand, also had the church termited.
Mr. & Mrs. Louis Vertommen donated Foam Rubber pads for the kneelers.
Mr. & Mrs. F. N. Shaughnessy donated beautiful candlesticks in 1950.
In 1965, Mrs. Luciana, a cousin of Mrs. Modecki, donated a beautiful chalice, thurible, cruets and gilded plate in memory of members of her family.
In 1950 St. Philip Benizi was built in Belle Glade. It was also a mission of Clewiston. With the loss of the parishoners from Belle Glade, St. Mary's became a very small congregation.
Fear of the Church Closing
Each year we lived with the worry that our little church would have to be closed, especially in the summer when we would have as few as 10 at Mass. In 1960 St. Philip was made a parish and St. Mary's a mission of it.
With the opening of the sugar cane industry a large number of Americans and Cuban families moved into the area. This made it necessary to have two Masses, one at 9 A.M. in English, the other at 6:30 P.M. in Spanish.
In 196l~I~ central air conditioning and heating were installed with the Altar Society contributing $1,345.00 of the cost and Osceola Sugar Company making a generous donation.
On July 27, 1965, Rev. Father Francis K. Fenech received a letter from the American Fletcher National Bank of Indianapolis who were the co-executors of the last will and testament of Sophie M. Hillenbrand, who for a great many years was a winter resident of Miami Beach, Florida. Enclosed was a check for $2,500.00 "for the improvement and maintenance of the church" and a request to have some Masses said for the repose of the souls of Mrs. Hillenbrand and her late husband, George M. Hillenbrarid.
Mr.George M. Hillenbrand was the same person who offered a very generous donation, $5,000.00 if the church would be named St. Mary s.
In 1965 a new roof was put on with the Altar Society paying $1,000.00 of the cost. Money for these large projects was raised by having an annual Cuban Dinner and Dance.
In 1967 to be in tune with the new regulations of the Liturgy, two new altars were built, one for the sacrifice of the Mass and another for the Tabernacle.
In the fall of 1967, a priest from Miami came to visit the pastor of Belle Glade. Accompanying him was a Cuban painter, Jose Luis Diaz Villegas, a very devout Catholic who was thinking of offering to any church one of his art works as a token of appreciation of the Cuban people to the American Catholics. This man is very well known as an artist by the Catholics of the Archdiocese of Miami because some of his designs illuminated the issue of the Voice. Making a tour of the parish they went to Pahokee and when Jose Luis Diaz Villegas saw the church, he said "That is my church".
On St. Patrick's Day, 1968, in his presence the painting was unveiled. The painting represents the miraculous catch of fish out in Lake Okeechobee. In the painting there are different ethnic groups which constitute the population of Pahokee; American White, American Negro, the Puerto Rican, the Mexican and the Cubans.
The same day the parishoners saw the new tabernacle, candlesticks and the statues which are in the openings of the wall; statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and our Blessed Lady of the Miraculous Medal. These items were donated by the Altar Society of Pahokee.
The church in Pahokee is the result of many struggles of the people and when visitors come to Pahokee and listen to the history they admire the faith of its parishoners and their good taste.
This church, perhaps, does not have a specific style but surely it has a marvelous personality.