PLANT CITY The first Catholic Mass in Plant City took place inside a modest house on East Baker Street in 1912.
During the next century, parishioners of what eventually would become St. Clement Catholic Church moved a handful of times before settling in the current Alexander Street sanctuary, which holds up to 1,000 people.
On Friday the church celebrated that evolution and commemorated its centennial with a procession from its existing home to two of its previous locations.
"One hundred years is a long time, but I know some of the families who come to the church today have relatives who have been coming since it was founded," said Thomas Anastasia, pastor at St. Clement since 2007.
That first Mass took place in the home of R.W. Burch and was presided over by Alfred Latiolais, director of Jesuit missions in Central Florida. Latiolais commissioned a census of Catholic families living in Plant City, and the results showed a need for a monthly Mass in the area. Meanwhile, periodic Masses had moved from the Burch house to the home of Mrs. Thomas Surrency, at Baker and Thomas streets, until 1920.
A Plant City mission was established in 1920. By that time, the Jesuit province had granted permission to buy the Surrency home and use it as a permanent church, which became known as the Holy Name of Jesus Mission Church and served the community until 1929.
That was the same year John J. Mullins was appointed pastor of the newly-formed Bartow-Plant City parish. The shift from mission to a larger parish church was a welcome change for the growing Catholic community in the area because it allowed for weekly Masses and increased religious education for children. The Surrency house was torn down shortly thereafter and replaced on the same site by a brick building. The new building was renamed St. Clement Catholic Church and had its first Mass in May 1931.
The church remained at that spot for 45 years before moving to its current Alexander Street location. By the late 1980s the church had outgrown its 500-seat St. Clement Hall, which was renamed Cronin Hall in 2004 in honor of David Cronin, who saw membership increase from 100 to 300 families during his 16-year stint at the church in the 1960s and '70s.
Proceeds Money from the church strawberry shortcake project — St. Clement's largest fundraiser — was used to buy land belonging to former parishioner Janice Thomas for an expansion. Each year, St. Clement operates a make-your-own-shortcake booth at the Florida Strawberry Festival. Next year's festival will mark the booth's 40th year.
"St. Clement Church and their strawberry shortcake booth have become synonymous with the festival," said Paul Davis, the festival's general manager. "I've found that people look forward to making their own shortcake at their booth as much as they look forward to doing anything else.
"They've been a great partner for us."
The land purchased with the strawberry shortcake project proceeds allowed for the construction of St. Clement's current sanctuary, which, Anastasia said, can seat about 1,000 people.
Today the church is dedicated to helping poor families and its predominantly Mexican migrant community through the My Brother's Keeper food pantry, which feeds about 125 families each week.
"There does seem to be a trend in recent years of the migrant population staying and settling in the area," said Janice Putvin, director of migrant ministry at St. Clement, during an interview in September.
Anastasia — he arrived at the church in 1988 as a seminarian before returning five years ago as its pastor — also has noticed the change.
"I remember first coming here as a city kid from Jersey, and it was very much a small country parish," he said. "So I'd throw on a cowboy hat and address everyone by saying, 'Hey, y'all.'
"When I came back a few years ago, I found that I had to throw on a sombrero and say, 'Hola, amigos.' "
In addition to a procession that saw parishioners walk from the current church to Cronin Hall and the brick building on Baker Street, the celebration included a 5 p.m. Mass at the newer sanctuary and a 6:30 dinner at Cronin Hall.
As for the next 100 years — Anastasia doesn't foresee major changes.
"We are fortunate because our demographic is very young, so emphasizing education and evangelization is key," he said. "You can only expand so much, and I don't think changing location again is something the community would be open to.
"The master plan right now involves maximizing what we already have."