The year 1868 became a landmark for the church in South Florida when five Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary arrived from Montreal, Canada, and established the first Catholic school in South Florida. The Convent of Mary Immaculate, the oldest educational institution in South Florida, had its humble beginnings in a framed government building, which was an abandoned Civil War barracks being used by locals as a goat shed. The school for girls was opened on November 9th with twenty-six young women enrolled. In 1869, Father Allard established a parochial school for white boys, and it was followed the next year with St. Francis Xavier’s school for black children. The Sisters also opened a school for Cuban girls.
On January 14, 1875 the Sisters began construction of a new building of native coral rock, the main part of which cost around $35,000. To save their money for building costs, the sisters would work on the grounds themselves during their “leisure hours”. The architect for the convent was an Irishman by the name of William Kerr. He had been brought to Key West to design and build the different forts around the Island. He also was to later build the county courthouse, city hall and the customs house. Resembling a building Kerr had known in France, the convent walls were constructed of native stone quarried from government property on the island. It was built on about eight and a half acres of property facing Truman Avenue. Construction was finally completed in 1876 and enrollment at that time was 300 students.
The Convent was more than an educational facility, however. During the Spanish-American War, the Sisters, demonstrating the apostolic charity characteristic of their ministry, would turn the Convent, along with the two school buildings, over to the U.S. Navy for use as a hospital.
In 1881, the Sisters established St. Joseph’s School. Dedicated to the education of white boys, this institution replaced the school founded in 1868. In 1900, the Jesuits established Jesuit College in Key West for the higher education of young men. This institution, which would close in 1916 due to insufficient patronage, is only one example of the important ministry the Jesuits provided the parish during the years 1898-1970.
In 1904, the Sisters enlarged the Convent of Mary Immaculate to nearly twice its original size. A decorative steeple was erected on the addition to bring a balance in design between the old and the new. Considered the handsomest educational building in the State of Florida, it was truly a monument to the devotion and heroism of the good women who founded and maintained it..
From Mary Immaculate to The Basilica School
In 1959, both St. Joseph’s School and St. Francis Xavier’s School were razed to make way for the construction of our existing building on Truman Avenue. The fundraising drive for the new school was led by the church’s Pastor, Father Joseph Beaver. Father Beaver was instrumental in generating support for the new school from people of all faiths and walks of life throughout the community. This new school would serve all students in the community, whatever their sex, race, or religion. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared Saint Mary, Star of the Sea a minor basilica. That same year, the school’s name changed to The Basilica School of Saint Mary Star of the Sea.