Sebring Parish marks century serving the Faithful

For 100 years the Faithful of Sebring in Highlands County have been able to call St. Catherine of Siena Parish their home.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane celebrated Mass for the St. Catherine community on the exact anniversary when the Parish was erected, March 2, 2024.

“Christ is the cornerstone of the Church, but you, the Faithful of St. Catherine, build up His House, you are the living stones,” Bishop Dewane said.

An anniversary is an important time to look at the past, the present and into the future, Bishop Dewane said. The Bishop reflected upon how much the Parish has grown and transformed in the past 100 years while serving the needs of the faithful in the community. The first Masses in Sebring were celebrated in homes by Jesuit priests who would ride horses from Tampa. It was in 1920 when a Mission church in the Diocese of St. Augustine (which encompassed all of Florida at the time), was established in the name of St. Catherine of Siena.

Bishop Dewane also praised all the priests, as well as the religious men and women who served the Parish through the years, who have served the spiritual needs of the Mission and Parish from its beginnings to today, including Father Jose González, who has been Pastor at St. Catherine since 2005.

“We celebrate this anniversary because we are a people of hope,” the Bishop said. “Christ made us to be this way. St. Catherine’s story goes into the present-day world, and into the future. St. Catherine is a family of believers, united in faith and in love of the Lord – to teach, proclaim and celebrate the word of God. This must continue when you leave the walls of the Church and enter out into the community.”

The Bishop also encouraged the faithful to take the time during the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Parish to grow in a deeper relationship with the Lord. “Pause to recommit yourself to live the faith to its fullest out among the people, not just in our homes. Invite those around you to be a part of this anniversary, this celebration of the Lord as a community and in your life.”

The Parish community has grown since its founding, including the establishment of St. Catherine Catholic School in 2008.

“These students are being formed to make a great contribution to our society as men and women of faith who can go out to the public square,” Bishop Dewane said. “It is the blessing of the Lord that the school continues to grow and continues to have the support of the entire community.”

Students from the school served as the Choir for the 100th Anniversary Mass. They were also pivotal in helping to set up the celebratory luncheon which followed the Mass.

Father González said he was grateful for the presence of Bishop Dewane at the important celebration in the life of the Parish. Father also expressed his gratitude to the parishioners who call St. Catherine their home today for their continuing support.

During the reception Father González recited the following prayer:

“To the pioneers, then, who long ago came to St. Catherine Church and whose first thoughts were of Christ and His Church, we humbly pray… We are grateful to those deeds of the past, which are our inspiration for the present and our hope for the future… As we honor the past, we cannot forget the present and the zealous part our parishioners are playing in the glorious progress of the Diocese of Venice, of St. Catherine Church and St. Catherine Catholic School. May all the good work continue as we pray that You, Loving Father, abundantly continue to bless our Diocese, our Parish and our School. Amen.”

The original Parish church was completed in late 1924, and the first Pastor was Father Patrick O’Brien. When the second Pastor arrived, a rectory was added in 1939. Three Victory Noll Sisters served in the Parish from 1956 until 1970. Father Jose Ruiz was named Pastor in 1976, and with his arrival came many changes. A new church was dedicated in 1978 and a new rectory built in 1979. The Parish Hall was constructed in in the early 1980s and the church was renovated and expanded. A new Parish office and youth center were built in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Father González was appointed Administrator upon the death of Father Ruiz in 2002 and has been at the Parish ever since.

Someone who remembers many of the changes at St. Catherine during the past 80 years is Margaret Mercure, who moved to Sebring in 1944 with her young family, following her husband who was in the military during the height of World War II. The couple loved the area so much, they stayed.

Mercure said she has many fond memories of her early years at the Parish, the religious sisters and growth of the area. Her most vivid memory was that there were no bathrooms for women in the original church. Women would need to use the bathroom in the Parish office as the substitute.

“When the new church was built, it was the first thing I checked out,” she said.

Pat Israel has lived in the Parish for 54 years. She received most of her Sacraments there, including First Holy Communion, Confirmation and Holy Matrimony, as did her children.

“St Catherine has been my spiritual home for many years,” Israel said. “It is home.”

As part of the ongoing 100th anniversary celebration, Father González welcomed Sister Nancy Murray, an Adrian Dominican who is also sister of comedian Bill Murray, who used her gift for acting to spread the story of Dominican Saint Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church. Transforming herself into the 14th century Saint and patroness of the Dominican Order, Sister Nancy’s one-woman show entertains audiences from across the world with her story of St. Catherine’s fierce devotion and love for God. Sister Nancy offered two presentations to the faithful, as well as to children in religious education classes and at St. Catherine Catholic School.

Happy 100th Anniversary to St. Catherine of Siena Parish!