By Tim Pallesen
Catholics were few in number when the Delray Beach Catholic Women’s Club started the first parish.
St. Vincent Ferrer Church celebrated its first Mass at the old Delray Theatre in 1941.
Today, the region from Boynton Beach to Boca Raton has nine Catholic parishes.
But St. Vincent’s remains strong in its 70th anniversary year because of a focus on families, a growing school and its own special charm.
“The first families were very strong in their faith,” said Judy Palivoda, whose parents were among the founders.
“We had mostly farmland and dairy then,” she said. “The theater was the place to use because there wasn’t any place else.”
Baptists outnumbered Catholics by a wide margin at the time. No Catholic parish existed between Lake Worth and Fort Lauderdale when the 10 ladies of the Catholic Women’s Club started St. Vincent’s with help with a Lake Worth priest while their husbands were busy in the fields.
Palivoda’s mother, Maurieta Nichols, wrote as church historian that Catholics here were “elated and grateful” when Irish priests and nuns then embraced St. Vincent’s as their mission.
The Rev. John Kellaghan arrived from Ireland in 1944 as the perfect personality to promote the new congregation.
“He was full of life and out in the community doing community things,” Palivoda said. “That had a lot to do with the early popularity of the church and school.”
The Irish priest even became the first charter member of the Delray Beach Elks Club to spread word around town that the Catholics had arrived.
“People knew Father Kellaghan, whether they were Catholic or not.”
Kellaghan negotiated the purchase of seven acres on what’s now George Bush Boulevard and began raising money to build St. Vincent’s first church.
Masses at the Delray Theatre ended in 1949 when St. Vincent’s dedicated its church with a capacity for 500 people.
The 100-by-51-foot concrete structure often had pigeons in the rafters that required special attention before worship services could begin. “We had to make sure the seats were clean before Mass,” Palivoda laughed.
The opening of St. Vincent’s school in 1955 would prove to be important for the congregation’s long-term success.
“Father Kellaghan wanted to help families,” the school’s current principal, Vikki Delgado, said. “What better way to carry out the mission of the parish than by building a school?”
Children who lived in the south county had risen before dawn to ride a bus to attend Sacred Heart Catholic School in Lake Worth. “But that was quite a trek in those days. It made for a long day,” Palivoda said.
The opening of the south county’s first Catholic school brought more families into the parish.
“People from surrounding towns came to St. Vincent’s,” she said. “We needed more church services to accommodate all the people.”
First nuns arrive
Four Sisters of Mercy nuns arrived from Ireland that year to educate the Catholic children. Both parents and students at St. Vincent’s were delighted.
“The nuns were strict but a lot of fun,” said Palivoda, who enrolled in the school’s first graduating class.
“They had quite a brogue,” she recalled. “Sometimes we didn’t quite catch what they were telling us.”
Sister Mary Clare was Ana McNamara’s favorite teacher.
“She radiated like a gentle spirit. She never raised her voice in the classroom. I loved going to her classroom,” said McNamara, who was so inspired by Sister Mary Clare that she is now a teacher at St. Vincent’s herself.
“The nuns believe that faith formation is first and foremost in education,” McNamara said.
A convent was built next to the school in 1961 for the increasing number of Sisters of Mercy nuns. The Rev. John Skehan replaced Kellaghan in 1963. A new church with seating for 1,100 opened in 1970.
Crime takes wind out
The momentum at St. Vincent’s suffered a blow when Skehan and his successor, the Rev. Francis Guinan, were convicted of misusing church funds in 2009. Police originally said $8.6 million in church money was missing, though that number has been disputed.
St. Vincent’s parish lost 500 families as a result of the scandal.
But now the parish is growing again. Membership is up to 2,900 families after 100 new families joined the congregation this past year.
Monsignor Thomas J. Skindeleski, the first American-born priest at St. Vincent’s, replaced Guinan in 2005. He credits the renewed popularity of the school for making the turnaround happen.
“The school is our big feature once again,” Skindeleski said. “Parents are moving into the parish because they want to get our quality education.”
Delgado was hired as its new school principal in 2008. Class sizes were reduced while the school was able to keep tuition costs low to increase enrollment.
Fest, nuns distinguish school
St. Vincent’s annual festival — the largest by any parish in the diocese — raises more than $100,000 each February to support the school. The festival began as a one-day St. Patrick’s Day event to honor the parish’s Irish tradition. Now it’s a three-day multicultural celebration that reflects the many ethnic backgrounds at St. Vincent’s.
Delgado sent schoolchildren out into the community to feed the poor after the scandal.
“The worst thing we could have done afterward would have been to hide,” Delgado said. “We needed to let the community know that St. Vincent’s is still here and vibrant.”
Most Catholic parishes in South Florida no longer have nuns. The Sisters of Mercy at St. Vincent’s have retired one-by-one and returned to Ireland.
But Skindeleski invited other nuns in 2008 to give children the same spiritual guidance. The three Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception who answered his call are easy to distinguish in their full-length habits.
“Nuns make a real difference by their presence in modern-day parishes, as much as their predecessors did in the old days,” Skindeleski said.
“The sisters are back to develop that spiritual component to education that parents see as important,” said McNamara, who gives tours to new students and parents.
“With all the chaos in today’s world, St. Vincent’s is still the solid ground for families to stand on.”
St. Vincent Ferrer February Festival
Friday, Saturday and Sunday,
St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church, 840 George Bush Blvd.,
Live music in outside tent and indoor Irish pub, carnival rides including roller coaster and Ferris wheel, food, flea market and entertainment. Highlights include antique car show and fish fry Friday night, Dolphins cheerleaders Saturday, and Irish dancers after Sunday morning pancake breakfast.
Free general admission.
Unlimited rides $30 (one day) and $60 (weekend) or $25 and $50 in advance.
Call 276-6892 or see www.stvincentferrer.com for details.