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It is hard to image what the Diocese of Venice in Florida might have been like when the first Spanish explorers came ashore in the 16th Century.

Their arrival brought the first Catholic missionaries who were intent on setting up permanent missions in the name of Spain and the Catholic Church.

Conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon is credited with discovering Florida in 1513 and exploring the west coast of the state between 1513 and 1521.

Ponce de Leon encountered the native Calusa Indians who first welcomed the Spanish but later objected because the explorers had desecrated their Indian Mounds and the Indians fought back. The Indians were fearful of the missions being constructed and frequently attacked the structures in hopes of driving the explorers off. When Ponce de Leon was injured in an attack the expedition and mission on the West Coast was abandoned.

It was another seven years before Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto brought priests to Florida in an attempt to evangelize the native tribes during an exploration of the coast from 1539-1542. DeSoto led an expedition of 10 ships and 620 men, which included 12 priests. They landed near present-day Bradenton on May 25, 1539. Mass was celebrated almost every day by the expedition priests. Later, when DeSoto landed at Shaw’s Point near the mouth of Tampa Bay, the men were so taken with the peace and beauty of the water that they named it “La Bahia de Espiritu Santo,” in honor of the Holy Spirit. The sheer number of DeSoto’s forces caused the Calusas to abandon their settlements along the harbor entrance.

A memorial to the Eucharist and a Memorial Cross were built and dedicated in the area near DeSoto’s landings by Bishop Emeritus John J. Nevins in 1994 at what is the DeSoto National Memorial Park in Bradenton.

Other efforts to bring missionaries to Florida were unsuccessful until Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founder of Saint Augustine and Governor of Spanish Florida, sought peace with the Calusa and founded a military outpost there in February of 1566. Pedro Menendez sought assistance from the Jesuits, who agreed to send a small contingent to Florida. Before leaving the San Carlos Bay area, Menéndez established a Jesuit mission at Mound Key near the mouth of the Estero River in present-day Lee County and left a garrison of soldiers to guard it.

Father Juan Rogel and Brother Francisco de Villareal spent the winter studying the language, and proceeded to work among the Calusa tribe in southern Florida. The establishment there of a fort and settlement at Mound Key was the first such effort to colonize the area. A Jesuit mission, San Antonio de Carlos was also the first such mission in the Spanish New World and was founded by Father Juan Rogel when a chapel was built in 1567. This mission was the first place where a Catholic presence was established that lies within the territory of the present Diocese of Venice in Florida.

It was not until after the Civil War those missionaries from Savannah, St. Augustine, and Tampa began visiting the areas south of Tampa Bay that would later become the Diocese of Venice. In 1889, the care of the area within the Diocese fell under the jurisdiction of the Jesuit Fathers from Tampa, who made regular visits to Bradenton, Fort Myers, Arcadia, and adjacent missions. The first missions and Catholic communities within the current Diocese of Venice in Florida were located at Sacred Heart in Bradenton (1868), Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (later St. Francis Xavier) in Fort Myers (1878), St. Paul in Arcadia (1882), Sacred Heart in Punta Gorda (1888), St. Martha in Sarasota (1889), St. Michael in Wauchula (1915), St. Joseph in Bradenton (1915), and St. Catherine in Sebring (1918).

The Diocese of Venice was established by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1984 from parts of the Archdiocese of Miami, Diocese of Orlando and the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Bishop Emeritus John J. Nevins was the founding Bishop and served until his retirement in January 2007. Bishop Frank J. Dewane took over all duties as the second Bishop of the Diocese of Venice in Florida in January 2007.


DIOCESE OF VENICE timeline 1984-present

1984 — July 17, Pope John Paul II erects the Diocese of Venice in Florida from parts of the Archdiocese of Miami, the Diocese of St. Petersburg and the Diocese of Orlando, naming Archdiocese of Miami Auxiliary Bishop John J. Nevins as the first bishop; Oct. 25 Bishop John J. Nevins is installed as first Bishop of the Diocese and Epiphany Church was dedicated as the Cathedral of the Diocese; Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc. founded; Diocese has 116,495 registered parishioners. 11 schools; first chancery of Diocese in rented building in Capri Isles area of Venice

1985 — Father Arthur William Hannaway is first priest ordained in the Diocese of Venice on May 25; St. Thomas More Parish dedicates new church; Council of Catholic Women founded for Diocese

1986 — Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Venice, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in North Fort Myers and Sts. Peter and Paul the Apostles Parish in Bradenton founded as parishes; Hispanic Services of Catholic Charities established in Fort Myers

1987 — The first six men ordained into permanent diaconate; Our Mother’s House, a home for single mothers with young children opens in temporary home in Bradenton; Catholic Center dedicated in Venice; St. Alfonso Chapel in Zolfo Springs dedicated

1988 — St. John the Evangelist Parish in Naples, St. Patrick Parish in Sarasota, Our Lady of Mercy (elevated from mission) in Boca Grande and St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Port Charlotte founded as parishes; Poor Clare Nuns form contemplative monastery in Fort Myers Beach; new San Marco Parish church on Marco Island dedicated; TV Mass for the homebound begins


1989 — Diocese of Venice celebrates five years with a variety of events; Los Hermanos Community of Christian Brothers begins ministry to migrants in Bonita Springs; Mass celebrated at DeSoto National Memorial in Bradenton to commemorate the 450th Anniversary of Hernando DeSoto’s landing in Florida; St. Andrew School opens in Cape Coral; first Catholic Charities ball in Sarasota; new churches at Holy Cross Parish in Palmetto, Sts. Peter and Paul the Apostles Parish in Bradenton and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Immokalee are dedicated; Rosary Crusade draws more than 4,000 to Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte; Mental health counseling offered by Catholic Charities for first time in Sarasota

1990 — Our Lady of Light Parish in Estero and Blessed (now Saint) Katharine Drexel in Cape Coral founded as parishes; new Hispanic Social Services Center in Fort Myers and St. Ann Parish church in Naples dedicated

1991 — First interfaith Yom Hashoah Service in remeberance of the Holocaust held at Epiphany Cathedral; Diocesan television Mass debuts; new St. Michael Parish church in Lake Placid and San Pedro Parish church in North Port dedicated; Mission and Catholic Hispanic Community of the Apostle St. James in Lake Placid founded; Our Mother’s House of Catholic Charities opens in Venice; first Diocesan Life Chain Pro-Life event draws 20,000 faithful along U.S. 41 from Bradenton to Naples

1992 — St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Chapel founded in Buckhead Ridge

1993 — St. Columbkille is established as a parish; San Antonio Parish in Port Charlotte established; Our Lady of Grace Parish in Avon Park renovated; Holy Family Chapel in Everglades City founded; St. John the Evangelist Parish church dedicated; first Media Appreciation luncheon


1994 — Diocese celebrates 10 years as a Diocese with a variety of events; Blessed Edmund Rice School established in Port Charlotte, serving adult formation class throughout Diocese; first Leaven Conference held; Guadalupe Social Services in Immokalee comes under Catholic Charities

1995 — St. Vincent de Paul Parish church dedicated; San Antonio Parish church dedicated in Port Charlotte; Our Lady of Lourdes Parish church in Venice dedicated; St. Peter the Apostle Parish church in Naples dedicated; Rice School opens in Arcadia

1996 — Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat and Spirituality center in Venice and the Campo San Jose Retreat Center in Lake Placid open

1997 — Bishop Nevins offers Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish as site for negations for migrant workers, Florida Youth for Life Congress held in Ellenton; statewide workshop for parish nurses and pastors held at Epiphany Cathedral Parish; St. Vincent de Paul Society of Naples dedicates Ozanam Center

1998 — St. Columbkille Parish church dedicated; first class graduates from Rice School


1999 — Diocese celebrates 15 years as a Diocese; St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Parrish founded as a parish and church dedicated; St. Michael the Archangel Parish church on Siesta Key rededicated, St. Agnes Mission in Naples was established; Hispanic Services of Catholic Charities opens offices in LaBelle and Bonita Springs

2000 — St. Joseph the Work Parish church in Moore Haven dedicated; St. Finbarr Mission in East Naples dedicated; St. Elizabeth Seton Parish church in Naples dedicated, Catholic Charities develops diocese disaster response program

2001 — Dreams Are Free School in Sarasota established; Catholic Charities refugee/resettlement program expanded to Naples, Fort Myers, Venice and Sarasota; U.S. government grant provides funding for establishment of HIV/AIDS housing program in Sarasota

2002 — Saint John XXIII in Fort Myers, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Osprey and Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Bradenton founded as a parishes; St. Rose of Lima Mission in Clewiston and Father Anglim Academy at Dream Are Free in Fort Myers established; Bishop Nevins Academy in Sarasota opens for St. Martha School and Dreams Are Free Academy; first Kristallnacht Convocation with Catholic/Jewish Dialogue Committee of Southwest Florida

2003 — Our Lady of the Angels Parish multi-purpose facility in Bradenton dedicated


2004 — Diocese celebrates 20 years as a Diocese; Hurricanes Charley, Francis and Jeanne strike Southwest Florida causing extensive damage to the region leaving thousands homeless and seriously damaging St. Isabel Parish on Sanibel, Sacred Heart Parish in Punta Gorda and St. Paul Parish in Arcadia; new Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Parish church in Bokeelia, St. Katharine Drexel Parish church in Cape Coral and St. Padre Pio Shrine at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Sarasota dedicated; St. Therese Mission in North Fort Myers founded

2005 — Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma strike Southwest Florida doing extensive damage and leaving thousands homeless; Saint John XXIII Parish church dedicated

2006 — Pope Benedict XVI names Msgr. Frank J. Dewane to succeed Bishop John J. Nevins as Bishop of the Diocese of Venice in Florida; Msgr. Dewane ordained as Co-Adjunct Bishop of Venice in July; St. Jude in Sarasota founded as a parish and church dedicated; Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish church/parish center dedicated; St. Padre Pio Shrine dedicated at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Sarasota

2007 — Bishop Frank J. Dewane takes over all duties as second Bishop of the Diocese of Venice; Bishop Emeritus John J. Nevins retires on his 75th birthday; Our Lady of Light Parish church dedicated; Holy Martyrs Mission in LaBelle and St. Agnes in Naples established as a parish; enhanced building and construction guidelines for Diocese, including greening efforts, established; enhanced Safe Environment program to protect children and vulnerable adults; Bishop Dewane celebrates Masses in area prisons for the first time; first Walk for Life in Fort Myers

2008 — St. Charles Borromeo Parish church in Port Charlotte rededicated, St. Isabel Parish on Sanibel reopens, new Sacred Heart Parish church dedicated in Punta Gorda, each received heavy damage from Hurricane Charley in 2004; St. Catherine School in Sebring opens and is the 15 school in the Diocese; Quasi-Parish of Ave Maria Oratory founded; first Red Mass at St. Martha Parish in Sarasota; first Bioethics Conference in Fort Myers for priests and medical professionals; first Novena of Masses for Life held throughout Diocese; first Environmental Justice Forum on Water


2009 — “Year of Celebration,” Diocese celebrates 25 years; 250,000 registered parishioners, eight elementary schools, three high schools, two special needs schools and one adult formation school. Mass held in honor of Bishop Nevin’s 50th anniversary as a priest; first men’s and women’s conferences held; first Diocesan-wide Youth Rally; inaugural Volunteer Appreciation Mass in Venice, Mass held at Eucharistic Memorial in Bradenton; walk-a-thon for World Missions

2010 — First Veterans Day Mass held at Sarasota National Cemetery; five priests bestowed with Papal Honors; first Walk for Life in Naples; Christ the King Chapel founded in Sarasota

2011 — “Catholics Come Home” campaign media blitz a success; St. Therese in North Fort Myers named 58th parish in Diocese; new Jesus the Worker Parish church dedicated in Fort Myers; nearly 100 pilgrims attend World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain; group of 25 youth go on mission trip to St. Lucia; Diocese celebrates Month of the Rosary; Diocese hosts 25th Annual Respect Life Conference; first project in Neighborhood Stabilization program dedicated in Sarasota; Ave Maria University recognized as Catholic University.

2012 – “The Light is On” campaign was introduced during Lent to encourage the faithful to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation with great success; Year of Faith began with a variety of events themed to encourage Catholics to become more energized in their Faith; The “Catholics Come Home” campaign returned in a modified format; four men were ordained priests by Bishop Dewane during two separate ordination Masses; a new women religious community was welcomed at St. Michael Parish in Wauchula when sisters from the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara arrived in September; a key theme throughout the year was the defense of Religious Freedom with thousands of people attending several rallies and participating in campaigns to encourage reversal of the HHS mandate; St. Monica Residence, a Catholic Charities apartment building for low-income families in Sarasota was opened; a new redesigned Diocesan website was unveiled; the year ended with the blessing and dedication of the new church for St. William Parish in Naples.

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