WEST TAMPA - More than 115 years ago St. Joseph Catholic Church began serving Tampa's immigrant population. Many of its parishioners were cigar workers at factories in West Tampa and Ybor City.
The church, at 3012 W. Cherry St., is the oldest in West Tampa, and one of three Catholic churches in the city built prior to the 1930s.
Today the sanctuary is undergoing a renovation that has roots in the historical churches of Europe and the religious art that celebrates the Christian faith.
Cuban artist Aldo Suarez painted a Holy Trinity mural on an unadorned wall behind the altar. In September, Suarez will begin work on a series of murals on church walls depicting the life of St. Joseph and the disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A triptych also will be repainted.
"Everything will be new," said the Rev. Vladimir Dziadek, pastor at St. Joseph. "It reminds me of the European churches. Maybe the people when they pray they recognize more the signs of God's presence."
The Holy Trinity mural was unveiled on Father's Day after being hidden behind scaffolding for six weeks.
Dziadek said it brought tears to the eyes of some parishioners.
"I'm excited and feel really good," said Suarez of the mural.
He moved to Tampa from Cuba more than 20 years ago. He completed more than 64 murals in Cuba. His art is on display at the National Museum of Art in Havana, Vatican City Museum and galleries in Ybor City, St. Petersburg and Miami.
As many as 80 percent of St. Joseph's parishioners speak Spanish, Dziadek said. But the congregation has more than 20 cultures represented including members from South America, Korea, Vietnam and China.
Donations are paying for the renovations.
"The parish is not very rich," Dziadek said. "But people love this parish. It's a very active parish."
Suarez worked with Dziadek in creating the specialized design for the Holy Trinity mural that includes a globe of the Earth displaying North and South America. European murals, of course, show European countries, but this is Florida, the pastor said.
Father Vladimir "is very passionate about appreciation for church history," said John Cinchett, St. Joseph's organist for 25 years. Cinchett's maternal grandfather was baptized at the church in 1909, and his parents were married there in 1956. "There are a lot of people who don't realize St. Joseph is one of the three oldest in Tampa."
In 1896, Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary opened a small, three-story brick school, The Academy of the Holy Names, on Albany Avenue. A Jesuit missionary who rode on horseback from St. Louis parish, near today's site of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, celebrated the first Mass.
In 1903, a church was built next to the school at Albany and Walnut Street. In 1930, the Salesian Sisters took over the school and renamed it St. Joseph's School. A few years later Redemptorist priests, who take vows of obedience and poverty, began serving at the church and school. When they left more than six decades later, St. Joseph's was the last parish in the city to have Redemptorist priests.
The nuns lived in a cigar factory converted to a convent until they moved to a new convent on Gomez Avenue in 1951. The old school building remains today, the site of Miracle Temple of God in Christ.
Four years later a school and rectory were built next to the Gomez Avenue convent. The current church with Spanish-style architecture was dedicated in 1965. Nearly eight years ago the old church's original organ was donated.