(This writing comes from the book that was produced in 1999)
In the beginning...
On August 25, 1973, Bishop William Borders appointed Father William Keane to found the new St. Matthew parish. Until a church could be built, Sunday masses were held in three different locations. Mr. and Mrs. Richard Pope, Sr., of Cypress Gardens, generously donated five acres of land as a site for the new church and the building process began. In February of 1974, Father Gerard Granahan was appointed as pastor to replace the transferred Father Keane.
Three years later, on March 6, 1977, the church at Carl Floyd Road was dedicated by Bishop Thomas Grady. The vestments worn by Bishop Grady at the dedication were presented to St. Matthew parish in memory of Winter Haven resident Matthew Smith. When the closest Catholic church was in Tampa, Matthew Smiths Sunday morning began at 3:00 a.m. with a five-mile walk to Auburndae to catch a train to attend mass.
From 1977 to 1988, St. Matthew parish experienced unprecedented growth in parishioners and in ministries providing service to God. Through dedicated stewardship, 20 acres of land was purchased in 1988 for our New Home and the building process began anew.
In December of 1993, Father Fred Ruse of St. Paul's parish in Daytona was appointed pastor to St. Matthew parish. Father Ruse, along with the parish community, was given the task of building our New Home.
In the beginning of 1991, a New Home committee comprised of 30 individuals from diverse backgrounds and ministries was formed to steward this task. In a process that differed from tradition, the entire parish community was invited to participate in the process of taking our New Home from vision to reality. Attendance at workshops and participation in subcommittees involved well in excess of two hundred parishioners.
Our New Home has been conceived, planned and built through the combined efforts of many parishioners from our faith community.
The materials and images chosen embody and express the focus of our Catholic faith: the paschal mystery of Christ's cross and resurrection which stands at the center of the Good News which we proclaim to the world. God's saving plan was accomplished once and for all by the redemptive death of Jesus Christ.
The physical materials used were also carefully selected with an emphasis to employ materials native to Florida such as coral stone, glass (sand), oak, and water.
The octagonal shape is integrated into several features of our New Home. The building itself is a modified octagon. The symbolism of eight was developed by patristic writers. Early Christians measured the week to image the creation story: the seventh day being the Sabbath, the day of rest. Christ's resurrection occurred on the day after the Sabbath (the eighth day), as did his appearances following his resurrection. The early church gathered on Sunday to await the time when the Lord would again appear in their midst.
The entrance drive to the Church places us on a pathway of winding curves and trees, serving as a reminder that we are a pilgrim people.
As we approach the church, we come together with our fellow journeyers as one body for the celebration of the Eucharist.
The driveway median is the location for our Easter fire pit and is the setting for the opening rite of the Easter Vigil. During this rite, the Easter candle is lit from this fire and processed into the church.
The baptistry, the only permanent fixture in the nave space, is located at the entrance to signify our entry into the church through baptism. The baptistry provides the source of holy water for parishioners to bless themselves as they enter and serves as a reminder of our own baptism into the resurrection of Christ. The interior shape of the baptistry is cruciform, a sign of Christ's death and resurrection, while the exterior shape is octagonal and representative of the theology of the eighth day.
The upper bowl of the baptistry is used for the baptism of infants while the lower font provides for immersion. The sets of three steps that enter and exit the baptistry symbolize Christ's resurrection and the Trinity. The act of descending, being baptized and stepping out reflect dying, being cleansed and becoming a new creation in Christ.
The fifteenth station, Christ's resurrection, is located at the exit of the baptistry. This is literally the first step of the newly baptized.
Coral stone was chosen for the font because it is native to Florida, comes from water, and has significance in its antiquity.
The paschal candle is used throughout the year, most notably at baptisms and funerals.
The nave space is an expansive area in which we assemble to celebrate the mass. Nave is Latin for "boat." the nave appears cold and cavernous when empty and is only complete when filled with members of our faith community assembled in prayer to celebrate the Eucharist.
Flexible seating allows the full participation of the assembly in the liturgical celebration and promotes a feeling of community. The arrangement of the seats and altar furnishings changes to accommodate the different liturgical seasons and feasts of the year. (*This no longer takes place after a renovation.)
The altar table and ambo are made of cherry wood, chosen for its strength and texture, and feature octagonal legs. The altar is square in shape and is the table for our eucharistic meals. The ambo serves as the table of the Word and shares its motif with the altar table, confirming our belief that Christ is present in both the proclamation of the Word and the sacred Eucharist.
The altar table and ambo are graced with hand carvings of citrus branches which recall the original use of our land. The orange tree is unique in that the fruit from the previous seasons share in the same branches as the blossoms from the new year, further illustrating the paschal mystery of death into new life. The thorns of the orange tree are a reminder of our Lord's passion.
The processional cross is housed on a cross shaped base. The material for the base is cherry wood and the brass rays match the design of the tabernacle doors from the original St. Matthew Church.
The image of Christ on the processional cross was modeled after the striking outdoor crucifix at San Pedro Center in Orlando.
The Blessed Sacrament chapel is accessible from the narthex and the nave and is the home of the tabernacle (Latin for "tent") (*The tabernacle was moved into the Sanctuary during a renovation) The Eucharist is reserved in the tabernacle for provision of communion to the sick and private prayer. This chapel is not a place for the action of the Eucharist, rather reservation, and stands as a sign of the community's worship shared with those unable to be present with the assembly.
The etched glass doors which separate the Blessed Sacrament chapel from the nave depict the passing seasons in the tree motif, and once again, the redemptive nature of the paschal mystery. (These doors were removed during the renovation, but the glass was saved and is now used to separate the Narthex and the Disciples Corner)
The doors of the tabernacle were taken from the original St. Matthew Church. The tabernacle is suspended between two pillars, much like the ark of the covenant, God's covenant with the Israelites.
The reconciliation chapel (no longer exists after a renovation) stands between the two spaces related to eucharistic life: the nave for gathering to celebrate the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament chapel for the reservation of the Eucharist. This dynamic emphasizes the mission of the sacrament of reconciliation. The windows of the reconciliation chapel preserve confidentiality, yet rescue the sacrament from being only a private experience; it is a community action, an action of the church.
The stations of the cross (on the floor) are made of coral stone in an octagon shape and are flush with the floor. Located throughout the nave, the stations encourage each parishioner to journey Christ's life, death and resurrection. Each station is designated by Roman numerals and marked by the ancient Christian figure of the fish. Customarily, there are fourteen stations; however, the fifteenth station has been added and placed at the baptism font to celebrate Christ's resurrection. (New Stations of the Cross have been affixed to the walls of the church during its renovation)
The ambry is located near the baptistry. This space houses the three vessels of holy oils; the oil of catechumens, used to bless and strengthen those preparing for baptism; the oil of the sick used to bring the healing and strength of Jesus to those suffering serious illness; and the sacred chrism used in celebrating the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Holy Order.
The word Christ means "anointed." When a person is anointed with holy oil, it is symbolic of a special relationship with Christ.
The memorial garden, located between the church and the orange grove, will be a quiet, reflective place of natural beauty, rich in symbolism and reiterative of the paschal theme. A memorial to those who have died will recall the communion of saints, which is the unity of the members of the church on earth with those who have gone before us. They are united as one in the Mystical Body of Christ.
A path will meander through the garden for the stations of the cross, each with a marker, an oak tree and a bench for reflection. The stations of the cross will culminate at the statue of the risen victorious Christ, the fifteenth station. The memorial garden will reflect the promise of new life in Christ, our savior.
(The Memorial Garden has since become our Columbarium where we as a parish fulfill the Spiritual and Corporal works of Mercy to pray for and to bury those who have died.)
The cornerstone is located on the exterior wall of the Blessed Sacrament chapel. It bears the Chi Rho (the Greek symbol for Christ), the name of the church and the year our New Home was completed. The cornerstone serves as a reminder that Christ is the cornerstone of the Church.
On Holy Thursday, April 1, 1999, we gathered for the first Eucharist in our New Home. The words of Jesus in the Gospel for liturgy served as a fitting christening for this new space and its community: "Like a servant He washed the feet of His disciples." No longer just bricks and wood, this space proclaims through the servanthood of this community, His life and love received and shared.
This community envisioned this new space as a sign of the justice of God's mercy and as an act to anoint generations to come. The words of St. Peter, "Come to the Lord, a living stone,... and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 2:4-5