The Story of St. Anastasia’s begins with the first Catholic residents. Thomas O’Brien, an Irish immigrant, came to Fort Pierce in 1879 and worked as a clerk in Capt. Benjamin Hogg’s newly opened general store. The store was later purchased by Peter Cobb, at which time O’Brien entered the fishing business with another local gentlemen named Ransom R. Ricou. O’Brien later married Courtney Raulerson, the daughter of a successful cattleman, and he became a leader in the local Catholic community. On February 2, 1901, T. J. O’Brien’s signature was among the fifty-three people who acted to incorporate the city of Fort Pierce. He also was a member of the first grand jury and a stockholder of the local ice factory.
The first Catholic Mass in Fort Pierce was celebrated at the O’Brien home (west of 10th Street and South of Orange Avenue) in 1903. By that time the Catholic community had grown beyond the O’Brien and Ricou families. In 1906, the Reverend Michael J. Curley, pastor of St. Peters in Deland, began to making bi-monthly visits to Fort Pierce. His work here included saying Mass, instructing the children, and preaching in the City Hall. Fr. Patrick J. Bresnahan was another priest who served the people of the area by conducting two missions in Fort Pierce in 1906. Fr. Bresnahan also officiated at the first Catholic baptism, that of Sam Wilbur Head, on January 7, 1906.
Senator James P. McNichol, a Catholic statesman from Philadelphia and a winter visitor, was the first great benefactor of the Catholic Community of Fort Pierce. McNichol purchased a block of land on the western edge of the city and donated it for the construction of a church, rectory and school. The wood-frame church was begun in 1908 and seated 125. The parish was named St. Anastasia, in honor of the patron saint of McNichol’s deceased first wife Anastasia.
On December 4, 1910, almost two years after the completion of St. Anastasia’s Church, Fr. Rupert Gabriel arrived to become the parish’s first pastor. Fr. Michael McNally, a Catholic historian, writes, “Parishioners remember Fr. Gabriel as a kindly man, generous, articulate, with a sense of humor and high value of education…Besides being pastorally concerned with his scattered Catholic flock, Fr. Gabriel was well known among Protestant businessmen, lawyers, and doctors. He was well liked not only by Catholics, but by Protestants as well.”
With a new pastor, and with Senator McNichol continuing as a financial benefactor of the parish, the second decade of the 20th century was a time of growth and prosperity for St. Anastasia’s. The parish became the center of missionary activity for the region, and the many mission churches visited by Fr. Gabriel later became independent Catholic parishes we know today:- St. Joseph’s of Stuart and St. Helen’s of Vero Beach, among others. St. Anastasia’s two-story school was built next to the church in 1914 and a convent was built to house Dominican sisters who would come later to teach there. When the first church became infested with termites and was subsequently torn down, a chapel was set up in the school from October 1923, until December 1924, for parish Masses. During this time a larger church was built on the site of the original St. Anastasia. Finally in the fall of 1926, three Dominican sisters arrived from Michigan to teach and administer St. Anastasia School for the parish.
On Christmas in 1924 the first Mass was said in the new church building and the first Baptism was on January 11, 1925: Katherine Margaret Ricou. Her parents were from the Ricou and Sullivan families and one of her sponsors was a son of Thomas J. O’Brien.
Posted From HISTORY ALIVE, Volume II-1999 a publication of Saint Lucie County Historical Commission. All rights reserved. Abstract of Article titled: The Old St. Anastasia School at 8th and Orange Avenue by Lisa Bell