Diocese marks 30 years of growth and faith

Youths from the five deaneries of the diocese led the procession to begin Mass celebrating the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese’s 30th anniversary.
Peggy DeKeyser 


The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee is both one of the oldest parts of the church in North America and one of the youngest. Thirty years ago, on Nov. 6, 1975, Pope Paul VI established the diocese, naming Bishop Rene H. Gracida its first bishop. Bishop Gracida was serving as an auxiliary bishop in Miami prior to his appointment to this see.

The history of the diocese stretches back, though, to the first Mass offered in August of 1559 by Dominican friars traveling with the Don Tristan de Luna expedition that landed on Santa Rosa Island. Even earlier, the first Mass was offered by Spanish missionaries near Tallahassee in 1539. The settlement at Pensacola was beset with hurricanes, and in 1561 de Luna was relieved of his command and he returned to Mexico. The settlement at Mission San Luis thrived until 1704, when the Apalachee Indians burned in to save it from falling into the hands of the advancing British and Creek Indian forces.

Along the way the territory that comprises the diocese has been part of the Diocese of Santiago de Cuba, the Diocese of San Critobal de Havana (twice), the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas (twice), the Diocese of Mobile, the Diocese of Savannah (all territories east of the Apalachicola River — the western counties remained in the Diocese of Mobile), the Diocese of St. Augustine (eastern eight counties first, later all 18), and, beginning in 1968, the Province of Miami, at which time the western 10 counties of the diocese were transferred from the Diocese of Mobile to the Diocese of St. Augustine.

While the diocese is the largest in territory in the state of Florida at 14,044 square miles covering 18 counties, it has the smallest population of Catholics, with approximately 70,000 registered parishioners in the 59 parishes and missions.

To mark the 30th anniversary, Bishop John H. Ricard, SSJ, who was installed as the ordinary in 1997, celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart on the anniversary date, Nov. 6. In addition to the Cathedral choir, the St. Eugene gospel choir from Tallahassee also sang. Msgr. Michael Reed, rector of the Cathedral, concelebrated the Mass, assisted by Deacons Jean White, John Durkin, Bradley Seabrook and Paul Graaff. Youths from the five deaneries led the entrance procession, carrying banners representing each deanery.

Alluding to the parallels between 1559-61 and recent hurricane seasons, Bishop Ricard said in his opening remarks, “When Spanish explorers came here in 1559, they symbolically planted a cross in the sand. A few years ago, the Knights of Columbus erected a permanent cross on the same location, one of the few dunes not taken out by (hurricanes) Ivan or Dennis, which could lead to the conclusion that we need more crosses. Of course, a few months after the de Luna expedition arrived, hurricanes came and wiped them out. Some things never change.”

Bishop Ricard said that the establishment of the diocese was a sign of recognition by the Holy See that the diocese had reached a level of maturity to be able to stand on its own. He called the faithful today the heirs of those who came to Pensacola and Tallahassee so many years ago to establish the faith in this New World.

Referring to the gospel, the bishop said, “There is a lesson for us in the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. We must remain at attention, not taking anything for granted, not taking our faith for granted. It is a warning not to be careless or indifferent about this great treasure that has been entrusted to us. For if we are careless, we will certainly lose it in the end.”

Further challenging the assembly, Bishop Ricard continued: “Faith is not simply a system of belief. It is more than assenting to a set of principles. Our faith is dynamic; it is active. Our faith is alive, and must be allowed to grow and expand throughout our entire lives. We must nurture it throughout our lives.”

Following the Mass, all were invited to take part is a luncheon in the parish hall. As people ate, a PowerPoint presentation of the history of the diocese, created by Father Joe Fowler, parochial vicar of Cathedral parish, was displayed.