Our Lady of Perpetual Help of Tampa, at 85, hopes for revival

TAMPA — The campus of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ybor City was loud and busy.

During the week of the late 1800s through the 1960s, hundreds of students attended the church’s kindergarten through grade 12, run by nuns who lived in a convent on campus. The church bell rang at noon to let nearby cigar factories know it was lunch break.

On weekends, weddings were the norm.

“My grandmother used to walk around to see the wedding dresses,” said Clarisse Castro, 78, who grew up opposite the church. During the regular Sunday service, the church which could accommodate up to 600 people was always full.

But the school was razed decades ago. The convent has been sold and is being used as office space.

Mass attendance today is typically around 25 people, Castro said.

On Sunday, the church, primarily known as OLPH, will celebrate its 85th anniversary.

Castro hopes the celebration will serve as a renewal.

“If you have an OLPH connection,” she said, “come back.”

One of Tampa’s oldest churches, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. [ Times (2017) ]

A sense of connection is why Eileen Miguel keeps coming back.

“My parents were baptized there,” she says. “They were married in the church. I was baptized there and married. My children were baptized there. She also went to school and graduated in 1964.

Victor DiMaio, who attends mass there with his mother, has a similar connection.

“My father was baptized with his seven siblings there,” he said. “My grandmother ran the school canteen. My mother and father got married there. “

DiMaio’s parents celebrated their 50th birthday by renewing their vows at the church and his father’s wake was held there in 2007.

“It 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 accountant Camille Prado.

Of those, about half attend regularly, Reverend Hector Cruz said. “They stopped coming since COVID. We hope that after the celebration, those who have been absent will return. I’m anxious for this celebration because 85 years is incredible.

The Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours school as it was in 1939.
The Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours school as it was in 1939. [ Times (1939) ]
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Our Lady of Perpetual Help may be celebrating its 85th birthday, but its property has been a religious campus since 1891.

At the time, it was known as Our Lady of Mercy and operated from a wooden church built on land purchased from Ybor City founder Vicente Martinez-Ybor through a donation from the railroad promoter Henry Flagler, according to the church’s website. The church was established “to handle the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants” who settled in Ybor to work in the cigar industry.

Later that decade, the Sisters of St. Joseph built St. Joseph’s Academy on church property. The academy eventually became a parochial school. Then, in 1937, the wooden church was replaced by a brick church and the parish and school changed their name to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Related: At 125, St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Tampa is moving from chalkboards to smartboards

“It was a neighborhood church with a neighborhood school,” DiMaio said. “But remember, this was before the freeway, so the neighborhood included Tampa Heights where my dad grew up and Palmetto Beach.”

Miguel lived in Palmetto Beach and walked to school. His father was a mechanic, but many of his classmates’ relatives were employed by cigar factories.

“And most of the 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 a Baptist, but my parents wanted me to get a good education in a school I could walk to.”

The boys wore white shirts and brown pants, he said, and the girls wore white shirts and green skirts. “The girls then had to wear bonnets during church.”

Elementary and middle school students attended mass every weekday and high school students on Wednesdays.

“I guess we were pretty holy in high school,” laughed Zappone. “And we had to make the sign of the cross every time we heard a siren, but a fire station was two blocks away, so we did that all day.”

The decline of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was due to factors that the church could not control. The highway isolated Ybor from neighboring communities. The Depression forced many cigar factories to close, and the US travel and trade embargo against Cuba ended the industry that depended primarily on tobacco from the island nation.

The children and grandchildren of the immigrants who founded Ybor moved to other neighborhoods in Tampa.

The high school closed in 1967, followed by primary and middle school in 1975.

Renovations to the church reduced seating capacity to 300 in 2017.

“We know it can’t be like before,” Castro said. “But we would like to see the church full again.”

Before air conditioning, church doors were propped open, Castro recalls.

“When it got quiet, you could hear my grandfather’s chickens across the street,” she says.

Castro thinks back to those times whenever she sees Ybor’s chickens near the church.

If you are going to

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. Mass is open to the public, but an RSVP is required to attend the reception. To RSVP, visit olphtampa.org.

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