Parish History


From: Santa Maria Del Mar Catholic Church, Silver Jubilee, 1970-1995. Flagler Beach, Florida, 1996

Santa Maria del Mar Chapel 1966
Santa Maria del Mar Chapel 1966

“If you build it, they will come!” Perhaps this was what Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley had in mind when he traveled the Florida Coast from Tallahassee to the Keys in 1954, purchasing property for the Diocese approximately every ten miles. Fortunately, Flagler Beach fit into that boundary, and property was purchased for our parish. And so began the quest for a Catholic Church in Flagler Beach.

Bunnell was the “city” which was first developed, its history dating back over a century. The Intracoastal Waterway was constructed in 1890. In 1909, the Bunnell Development Company was formed. Its chairman, Isaac I. Moody realized that Bunnell and the surrounding areas would continue to grow. Mr. W.A. Cookman purchased several acres from the Company and planted an orange grove one mile west of the Intracoastal. The name of this area was Ocean City. There were no buildings East of the Intracoastal. The drawbridge was not completed until 1920. In 1913 George Moody, a pioneer in Bunnell, applied for a homestead on 169 acres, which included one mile of Flagler Beach ocean frontage. Since there was no bridge spanning the Intracoastal and no road through the marshland, Moody built a ferryboat to transport automobiles across the canal, and a corduroy road of logs over the marshland. A. V. Wickline was appointed ferry operator.

In 1915 Ocean City was awarded a post office and eight years later the US Post Office Department officially named the community ”Flagler Beach”. The magnificent four-story Flagler Beach Hotel was built in 1924. Among its guests was Charles A. Lindbergh. In 1925, a four-room school house was erected, the municipal pier was constructed, and Flagler Beach was incorporated as a city.

At that time, the Diocese of St. Augustine encompassed the area from Tallahassee to the Keys. In 1954, Archbishop Hurley purchased seventeen acres from Model Land Company for $14,000. Claude G. Varn, an attorney from St. Augustine who sold the property to the Archbishop, donated an additional eight acres.  There were approximately 600 registered voters in Flagler Beach in the early 1950’s. Only a small number of Catholics lived in the area.

A group of Polish settlers from Chicago had migrated to Korona in 1914 and built St. Mary’s, the first Catholic Church in Flagler County. In 1957, St. Stephen’s was built on SR-I00 in Bunnell. Each Sunday, the Chancellor’s office in St. Augustine sent priests to the 2 churches to celebrate Mass for the Catholics in the area.

Fr. Antonio Leon arrived in Flagler Beach in 1960 and served as the first resident Pastor for Korona and Bunnell. Born in Cordova, Spain, he was ordained to the priesthood in Madrid in 1957 and came to the United States in 1959. After pursuing graduate studies at the Catholic University of America in. Washington, D.C., he was assigned to St. Petersburg, Florida.

Fr Antonio Leon 1960-1974
Fr Antonio Leon 1960-1974

When he came to Flagler County there was no rectory, so Fr. Leon rented an apartment in Bunnell from Mr. & Mrs. Stanish until the parishioners added a small building to the rear of St. Stephen’s Church.

Without a church of their own, the Catholics from Flagler Beach traveled to St. Stephen’s for Masses, Baptisms, Confirmations, weddings and funerals. To accommodate the growing number of Catholics in Flagler Beach, Mr. & Mrs. Tom Cannody offered their building on the corner of AI-A and North 7th Street, where the Pizza Hut is now located, to be used as a temporary chapel.

The building had been vacant for some time and in need of renovations. Stained-glass paper was applied to the windows, a wooden altar was constructed, pews were donated by the Lady of Good Council Church in Bakersville, a large crucifix from Germany was installed on the wall, and a sign signifying the building as The Blessed Sacrament Chapel was erected. Thus Fr. Leon celebrated the first Mass on April 24, 1966.

In the beginning very few people attended Mass regularly on weekends, however attendance soon grew to about 30 parishioners. Although they were very grateful to the Carmody family, parishioners were eager to build a permanent church. Many dinners and fund-raisers were held. Most families tried to pledge $200 a year. The Extension Society of Catholic Churches, which gave financial assistance to new parishes, had decided it could no longer continue this charitable practice. However, they agreed to contribute $10,000 to the church fund. This was their last monetary donation to a church. Joe Stua, an altar boy at that time, remembers the enthusiasm prevalent in this small parish. Kathy Watson, whose sons Jim and Steve were also altar boys, remembers the spirit of joviality and hope which existed among the parishioners.

Fr. Leon drew up the plans for the new church. He then approached the contractor, Floyd Collins Sr., who had built the Barnett Bank building on Moody Boulevard, City Hall in Flagler Beach, and many other buildings in the area. Mr. Collins, a Baptist, told Fr. Leon that he would be “delighted to build a Sanctuary to the Lord.” He donated his services, charging only for the materials and his employees’ wages.


Ground was broken for the new church on Central Avenue and 8th Street on June 14, 1970. Many parishioners offered their

The Old Church which is now our Hall.
The Old Church which is now our Hall.

assistance. The new church had rich mahogany pews, brilliant stained-glass windows, lovely statues from Spain, attractive yellow-gold carpeting, a beautiful marble font donated by St. James Cathedral in Orlando, and a spectacular marble altar from Spain donated by Fr. Leon. The total cost of the church and furnishings was $72,000. Bishop Tanner requested that we name our church Santa Maria del Mar in honor of the voyage of Columbus to the New World. With God’s blessings, along with the donations, dedication and generosity of this small community, the construction of the first Catholic Church in Flagler Beach was completed.

On October 11, 1970, Mass was celebrated at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church in Flagler Beach for the first time. Bishop Tanner dedicated the new church on Wednesday, December 3, 1970. Fr. William Mooney was Mastor of Ceremony. Fr. O’Flaherty attended and recalled that approximately 40 people were present.

Bishop Tanner visited the church shortly after its completion. He was so impressed with the simplicity and beauty of the church as well as the inspiring view of the ocean that he said, “Let’s make a deal. You take the Diocese and I’ll take this parish.”

Grace Mitchell was Fr. Leon’s secretary. Ruby Jarosz, who had eight young children, was his bookkeeper. Fr. Leon established religious education for the children. Prayer groups were held in different homes. He organized the Ladies Guild, with Trez Frassrand as its first President. Bingo at that time was called “Over 50 Club” and rosaries were given as prizes instead of cash. In 1974, there were about 130 Catholic families in Flagler Beach; 84 in Palm Coast, 50 in Bunnell, and 16 in Korona.

Since Palm Coast was becoming populated, Fr. Leon persuaded ITT to allow him to use the movie room in the Welcome Center to celebrate Mass, thus paving the way for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church.

There was still no rectory in Flagler Beach. Fr. Leon was living in the addition behind St. Stephen’s Church. In the early 1970’s, Mr. and Mrs. Lee Drazba of Korona donated a house on 7th Street to Fr. Leon. After much trial and tribulation the house was moved to the church property to become the parish rectory.

Built in 1948, the house needed extensive renovations. Using stipends received from Mass intentions, Fr. Leon began gradually making repairs. The rectory was completed just a few months before Fr. Leon was transferred to Immaculate Conception in


In June of 1974 Fr. Thomas Cody was assigned to Flagler County. Born in Waterford, Ireland, Fr. Cody was ordained in Kilkenny,

Fr Thomas Cody 1974-77
Fr Thomas Cody 1974-77

Ireland in 1968 and came to the United States the same year. He served as Associate Pastor at Panama City and was a religious teacher and coach at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville before coming to Flagler County to replace Fr. Leon.

Records indicate that the first baptism at Santa Maria del Mar was that of Thomas Hayden Bemis on May 8, 1975. Richard Anthony Jarosz and Anna Maria Burkett was the first couple to be married in the new church on May 3, 1975. The first confirmation was held on February 7,1977. The first funeral was for Larry Joel Yankowski on May 25,1975.

There was only one priest to serve four communities, although Fr. Bayer said mass occasionally. Fr. Cody celebrated Mass on Saturdays in Palm Coast at 4 PM and at Santa Maria at 6 PM. On Sundays he served Mass in Korona at 8:30 AM, in Bunnell at 10 AM, and at Santa Maria at 11:30 AM.

Fr. Cody remembers that Mass could not begin at Santa Maria until Ed Cawe went outside to ring the bells, and then sound the chimes inside. He has beautiful memories of the people here, the parish dinners served by John and Sadie Swartz among others, the laughter and music provided by Dot Morrison, the dances, picnics and children’s activities.

In 1976, Bishop Tanner established two distinct parishes in Flagler County. One parish would include Santa Maria del Mar, St. Mary’s and the cemetery in Korona. St. Stephen’s, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and the hospital in Bunnell would constitute the other parish.

Fr. Cody became Pastor in Palm Coast in 1977 and Fr. Roland Julien arrived in Flagler Beach. Fr. Julien was ordained April 25, 1965 in St. Augustine. He had served at the Cathedral, St. Ambrose in Elkton, Our Lady of Victory in Crestview, and St. Madeleine’s in High Springs. He enjoyed repairing clocks and worked on the Court House clock in Daytona Beach.

Mary Josephine Gillen remembers him as a collector and avid reader. The first Spring Festival was held in 1979. All the colorful booths were built by parishioners. It was such a success financially and socially that it became an annual event for many years. He cleared the ball-field and bought the first lawnmower for the church. During Fr. Julien’s tenure, Bishop Snyder instituted the program of Special Ministers and Lectors and conferred the Rite of Extra-Ordinary Ministers on eight parishioners.

When Fr. Julien transferred to St. Patrick’s in Gainesville in 1980, Fr. Anthony Sebra became Pastor of Santa Maria del Mar. Fr. Sebra was born in Jacksonville and ordained on June 11, 1972 at Assumption Church in Jacksonville. He had served at the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in St. Augustine, St. Mary’s in Fort Walton Beach, Sacred Heart in Jacksonville, and St. Mary’s in Macclenny.

Fr Anthony Sebra 1980-1990
Fr Anthony Sebra 1980-1990

Fr. Sebra led the parish in the 3-year RENEW program, installed the parking lot, built the garage, renovated the Church, acquired stained-glass windows for the door, and created a recreation area behind the church. Many Spiritual and social activities were held, enabling him to payoff our debt for the parish property.

The parish continued to grow, and during the winter season a third Mass was held to accommodate the overflow of parishioners. Fr. Sebra, realizing that the church would soon have to be enlarged, began to make plans for the future growth and expansion of the parish.

Fr. Sebra is remembered by his parishioners for his humility and compassion. He loved people and enjoyed visiting with parishioners. He could always be seen walking the beach, talking to people. He was especially thrilled when he went fishing in the surf for the first time and caught several whiting and blue crabs. He often prepared southern and ethnic foods which he learned from his mother, Mrs. Helen Sebra, a delightful and interesting woman who visited Flagler Beach often and participated in many of the activities of the parish.

When Fr. Sebra left for Epiphany Church in Lake City in June of 1990, we welcomed Fr. John O’Flaherty to our parish. Fr. O’Flaherty was born in County Kerry, Ireland, ordained on June 4, 1961 in Kilkenny, Ireland and came to Florida that same year. He served at four different parishes before coming to Santa Maria del Mar.

He immediately organized a Ladies Club, Men’s Club, Singles Club and Knights of Columbus Chapter. Since the RCIA program was of great interest to him, he made a special effort to enhance the program. Extensive renovations were made to the church, increasing the seating capacity to 480. The social hall was expanded, a new kitchen was built and equipment was purchased. Fr. O’Flaherty held instruction classes for children, teenagers and adults. He computerized the office and accounting system and set up a building for St. Vincent de Paul Society. The parish purchased a truck to use in maintaining our property and acquired a house to be used as the pastor’s residence. The rectory was converted into much needed office space. Fr. O’Flaherty was responsible for building a new church in Korona.

Many call him a builder, but he does not believe this is his’ most important work. He is more concerned with reaching out to people, especially those with problems, or those who are divorced or are in invalid marriages. One of his most important duties, he believes, is to prepare a good sermon.

Fr. O’Flaherty’s sermons are informative and interesting and are always spiced with humor. We learned to root for his favorite footbal

Fr John OFlaherty 1990-2001
Fr John OFlaherty 1990-2001

l team – The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. He supports us in all our endeavors and eagerly participates in all functions. His jovial but quiet nature lifts our spirits, brings hope to our community and encourages us to strive for the impossible.

During the 1990’s extensive renovations were made to the church, increasing the seating capacity to 480. Santa Maria del Mar was then home to approximately 1200 people in the winter and 600 in the summer. Even though three masses are celebrated each weekend, they are filled to capacity. With that in mind, Fr. O’Flaherty set out to build a new church with a capacity of 1300.

In 1999 groundbreaking took place for a brand new church building.  The parish contracted with architects Junick & Walter in Jacksonville.  The general contractor was The Farrin Company also located in Jacksonville.  In just one year, construction was completed and the Santa Maria del Mar Catholic community held it’s official dedication of the new building on October 22, 2000.  The ceremonies were conducted by Bishop Thomas J. Snyder.

As the community ushered in the new millennium, the growth of the community continued.  In 2001 we welcomed Father John Tetlow.  In 2006 ground broke for the new Rectory and Ray Alleman Learning Center.  Both were completed in 2007.  In July of 2008 the parish welcomed it’s current Pastor, Father Alberto Esposito.

And the story continues . . .

Our Pastors Through the Years