TAMPA — The campus of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ybor City used to be loud and busy.
During the week in the from the late-1800s through 1960s, hundreds of students attended the church’s kindergarten through 12th grade school, helmed by nuns who lived in a campus convent. The church bell rung at noon to let neighboring cigar factories know it was lunch break.
On weekends, weddings were a norm.
“My grandmother used to walk over to see the wedding dresses,” said Clarisse Castro, 78, who grew up across the street from the church. During regular Sunday service, the church that could fit up to 600 was always full.
But the school was razed decades ago. The convent was sold and is used as office space.
Today, Mass attendance is usually around 25 people, Castro said.
On Sunday, the church, which is primarily known as OLPH, will observe its 85th anniversary.
Castro hopes the celebration serves as a revival.
“If you have a connection to OLPH,” she said, “come back.”
A sense of connection is why Eileen Miguel keeps going back.
“My parents were baptized there,” she said. “They married in the church. I was baptized and married there. My kids were baptized there.” She also went to the school, graduating in 1964.
Victor DiMaio Jr., who attends Mass there with his mother, has a similar connection.
“My dad was baptized along with his seven siblings there,” he said. “My grandmother ran the lunchroom at the school. My mom and dad were married there. “
DiMaio’s parents celebrated their 50th anniversary by renewing their vows at the church and his father’s wake was held there in 2007.
“It’s served generations,” DiMaio said.” It’s an important part of Tampa.”
At its peak in the early 1960s, according to news archives, the church had as many as 5,000 parishioners.
Today, the church has 385 parishioners, according to bookkeeper Camille Prado.
Of those, around half attend regularly, the Rev. Hector Cruz said. “They stopped coming since COVID. We are hopeful that after the celebration that those who have been away will return. I am anxious for this celebration because 85 years is amazing.”
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Our Lady of Perpetual Help might be celebrating 85 years, but its property has been a religious campus since 1891.
Back then, it was known as Our Lady of Mercy and operated out of a wooden church built on land purchased from Ybor City founder Vicente Martinez-Ybor with a donation from railroad developer Henry Flagler, according to the church website. The church was established “to minister to the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants” moving to Ybor to work in the cigar industry.
Later that decade, the Sisters of St. Joseph built St. Joseph’s Academy on the church property. The academy eventually became a parish school. Then, in 1937, the wooden church was replaced with a brick one and the parish and school changed names to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
“It was a neighborhood church with a neighborhood school,” DiMaio said. “But remember, this was before the interstate, so the neighborhood included Tampa Heights where my father grew up and Palmetto Beach.”
Miguel lived in Palmetto Beach and walked to school. Her father was a mechanic, but many of her classmates’ parents were employed by cigar factories.
“And most students were absolutely Latin,” said Miguel, who is Spanish and Cuban.
Palmetto Beach native Tony Zappone, who graduated from the school in 1963, said he was one of the few non-Catholic students to attend the school. “I was Baptist, but my parents wanted me to get a good education at a school I could walk to.”
Boys wore white shirts and brown pants, he said, and girls wore white shirts and green skirts. “Girls then had to wear beanies during church.”
Elementary and middle school students attended Mass every weekday and high school students on Wednesdays.
“I guess we were holy enough by high school,” Zappone laughed. “And we had to make the sign of the cross whenever we heard a siren, but a fire station was two blocks away, so we did that all day.”
Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s decline was due to factors that the church could not control. The interstate isolated Ybor from neighboring communities. The Depression forced many cigar factories to close and the U.S. travel and trade embargo against Cuba brought an end to the industry that depended primarily on tobacco from the island nation.
Children and grandchildren of the immigrants who founded Ybor moved to other areas of Tampa.
The high school closed in 1967, followed by the elementary and middle school in 1975.
Church renovations downsized seating to 300 in 2017.
“We know it can’t be as it once was,” Castro said. “But we’d love to see the church full again.”
Before air conditioning, the church doors were kept open, Castro recalled.
“When it became quiet, you could hear my grandfather’s chickens across the street,” she said.
Castro thinks of those times whenever she sees Ybor’s chickens near the church.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help at 1711 E. 11th Ave. will celebrate its 85th anniversary with a 10 a.m. Mass on Sunday, followed by a reception. The Mass is open to the public, but an RSVP is required to attend the reception. To RSVP, visit olphtampa.org.
Culture Reporter
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