New Port Richey
Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church
It all began in Mary and James Casey's dining room. In 1913, Father Felix Ullrich traveled weekly from St. Leo Abbey to the Caseys' New Port Richey home on Washington Street, to celebrate Mass with the only three Catholic families in town. The Caseys' dining room table served as the altar. Several years later, on March 9, 1919, the small congregation built Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church on Washington Street — the first Catholic church in west Pasco.
The congregation only got to enjoy their new place of worship for two years before a hurricane barreled through Pasco County. The 125-mph winds toppled the belfry and lifted the church off its foundation, turned it 90 degrees and set it down again, facing west. Ullrich, who was living in the sacristy at the time, was unharmed.
As Ullrich surveyed the damage and the new direction of the building, he said, "Well, if that's the way God wants it, we'll just have to leave it that way," according to a newspaper account cited on the local history site Fivay.org.
The church was rebuilt, minus the belfry, facing west instead of south. Soon after, a rectory was built to house Ullrich. By the time he moved in, the number of parishioners more than quadrupled to include 13 families. Some of these parishioners were movie stars who vacationed in New Port Richey. Actor Thomas Meighan and his brother Jim, golfer Gene Sarazen, and actress Edna Wallace Hopper contributed generously to build the parish hall.
Ullrich died in 1953. One of his successors, Father Aloysius Dressman, erected a shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in his honor. The shrine drew many tourists to the church during the May coronation celebrations.
"The church was very visible because there weren't many tall buildings," said Carol Keyes, the church's centennial leadership chair. "People would gravitate there."
By 1964, the congregation had grown so large that some Masses had to be held in the Cinema Theatre, now the Richey Suncoast Theatre, to accommodate the 1,500 parishioners every Sunday.
This led to a new, bigger church being built on High Street, where Our Lady Queen of Peace remains today. The oldest members of the church, Mary Grey and Peter DeCubellis, shoveled the first soil on the new land. The old building on Washington Street was moved in 2001 to Sims Park, where it was restored into a community center called Peace Hall.
Chuck Grey, owner and broker of F.I. Grey & Son real estate, is the great-grandson of Mary and James Casey, the owners of the house that became Our Lady Queen of Peace.
"(Our Lady Queen of Peace) is really an extension of my whole family, because it's been such an integral part of our whole upbringing," Grey said. "Regardless of where I've actually lived, whether I've lived in Hudson or Port Richey or New Port Richey or now Longleaf, I still go to that church because it's my church."
Two of Grey's children, 12-year-old Veronica and 11-year-old Britney, are altar servers in the church, which now has about 2,200 families.
The centennial celebration, Grey said, "is almost like a family reunion."
"The three families were like a mustard seed that was planted 100 years ago that is growing and continuing to flourish in west Pasco and throughout the United States," said Keyes, who has been a member of the church for 40 years. "Even today, people are being impacted by the faith of the three families."
Frank Klausch, a 90-year-old head usher who has been a member of Our Lady Queen of Peace for 50 years, and his wife Marie, restored a chalice donated to the church by Thomas Meighan in 1927.
"I've been in the church 50 years, that's half of the church's history," Klausch said. "All I know is I am a part of the church, and to take it away would be taking my life away."
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.