Originally the Black Catholics of Jacksonville were a part of Immaculate Conception Parish. As in the case of so many parishes in the south, while Blacks held membership in the parish, their participation in parish affairs was limited and they could not enjoy parish life to the fullest. Seating was restricted to side doors, the youngsters were not allowed to serve at the altar nor were the adults allowed to sing in the choir.
As one parishioner expressed it, “We’re sick and tired of being side door, back pew Catholics. If we are going to share equally in His Kingdom of Heaven, why can’t we share equally in His Kingdom on earth?”
These complaints spawned the idea of setting up a separate parish for the Black community. The Messrs. Andrew Huff, Arthur Aveilhe, and Louis Abraham seem to have been the pioneers of this movement. Mr. Huff was given authority to run entertainments and other fund raising events “with a view of raising money to erect a suitable building for a new church.
After two or three years of fund raising, Bishop Michael J. Curley, who was ever solicitous for the welfare of the Blacks of the Diocese of St. Augustine, contacted the Josephite Fathers who were specialists in this work and the Superior General of the order assigned Father Michael Gumbleton, SSJ to start the new parish here in Jacksonville.
On September 14, 1919, Father Gumbleton celebrated the first Mass for the new congregation in the schoolhouse behind Immaculate Conception Church. The record shows that there were 47 present for this first Mass and the collection amounted to $7.70. With this humble beginning, the seed was planted for the new parish under the title of St. Pius V.
It took a great deal of courage and prayerful thought for these first parishioners to take such a bold step, but if they had any doubt about what they were doing, that doubt was quickly dispelled. In three weeks time the congregation had grown so large they had to move into larger quarters. The group move to the Temperance Hall, 318 West State Street, and although conditions were anything but ideal, the hardships endured by the congregation were minimal compared to the joy of experiencing full membership in their parish.
Father Gumbleton writes of this joy when he describes the first Christmas of the new parish. “This is the first time in the history of this city that the Black congregation has had the privilege of seeing their own boys in cassock and surplice assisting the priest at the altar. The first time they hear the voices of their own parishioners singing in the choir. Three Masses were celebrated without interruption, starting at 5 AM and the congregation remained for all. They had to walk to church as the trolley cars do not start before 6 AM. The Pythian Hall was filled, the organ was loaned by a dealer and a professor was hired to play.”
Early in 1919, a site was purchased by the Bishop for $12,000, half a city block at West State and Lee Streets. Father Plunkett, SSJ was assigned by
the Josephite Superior to personally direct the project. Father Gumbleton writes, “The building of the church will be under the personal direction of Father Plunkett and will cost approximately $47,000.”
Father Plunkett arrived and being a skilled craftsman began to build the new building which was to be a combination church and school. He soon gained the respect of the whole community, both Catholic and non-Catholic, for he could be seen daily working with the other construction workers.
The building was finished in good time and was dedicated on February 27, 1921 by Bishop Curley with Father Plunkett celebrating the Mass. Father Gumbleton writes of this occasion, “It is one that was looked forward to with much expectancy by the whole parish for a year or more, and an occasion long to be remembered by the Colored People, Catholic and non-Catholic alike; for it was the first time in the history of the enterprising city of Jacksonville that the Right Reverend Bishop Curley of this diocese was called upon to dedicate a church for the Catholic people of the Negro Race. Interest was manifested on every side, for the Colored People of this city felt that there was something to see worth seeing, something to hear worth hearing, and they were not going to miss it.”
The new building cost $55,000 and was financed by the Fathers of St. Joseph with substantial contributions from Bishop Curley and Monsignor John E. Burke, DD, director of the Catholic Board for Missionary Work Among the Colored People. But it was the sacrifices made by the congregation itself, which is described as being made up of the poorer class of the city, which like the widow’s mite was most pleasing to God and brought His blessing upon the new parish.
The area around State and Lee Streets began to deteriorate and so did the church-school building. It finally was declared unsafe and beyond repair. A large tract of land was purchased on Blue Avenue between 11th and 13th Streets and a new building was erected as a combination church-school building. This new building was dedicated by Archbishop Hurley on October 23, 1961.
On Sunday, November 1, 1981, the Feast of All Saints, the third church of St. Pius V was dedicated in the presence of Bishop John J. Snyder, Bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Very Reverend John Fillipelli, SSJ, Superior General of the Josephite Priests and Brothers, Father Robert Bowen, SSJ, who served as pastor from 1980-1984, 20 visiting priests and 658 people.
The new church is a tribute to the generosity of over 850 parish members, the Negro and Indian Mission Fund benefactors, the Diocese of St. Augustine and the Josephites.
The parish continues in the spirit of which it was founded…the spirit of love and the spirit of giving. May God continue to bless our parish. We are proud of our heritage.