CASSELBERRY | Every Sunday in 1969, hundreds of people flocked to the theater at Seminole Plaza and filled rows of seats facing a giant movie screen. But instead of waiting for the latest blockbuster to appear, these people were eagerly waiting to participate in the celebration of Mass.
For two years, this theater was home to the St. Augustine Parish community while a more permanent worship space was being built. It was here that Mariana Simonelli first experienced the community during a trip to Florida to visit her in-laws. Little did she know decades later she would count many of those present among her closest friends or that together they would celebrate the parish’s 50th anniversary.
“For me, it’s home,” said Simonelli, who over the years has volunteered as youth group leader, faith formation teacher, head of children’s liturgy and is currently serving for her second time as parish council chair. “It’s a very caring parish. We may not be rich in material things, but the generosity is overwhelming.”
It became evident in the mid 1960s there was a need for a new parish in Casselberry and the community has been tightly knit ever since. Sixty families from neighboring parishes, St. Mary Magdalen in Altamonte Springs, Sts. Peter and Paul in Winter Park and Nativity in Longwood, celebrated the first Mass together at the Casselberry Women’s Club. That number soon grew and Mass was moved to the cinema and eventually to the newly built parish hall in 1971. The church itself broke ground on the feast of St. Augustine in 1978. Bishop Thomas Grady dedicated the building on May 4, 1980. The parish was named St. Augustine for the Augustinian priests who served there as part of their new mission in the South. Although the Augustinians are no longer present at the parish, the community retains a strong devotion to their patron.
“Following the Augustinian Fathers, founders of this parish, our major celebrations take place around the feast of St. Augustine, which is Aug. 28. St. Augustine Day is a family day. We celebrate it the weekend closest to the feast of St. Augustine,” explained Father Tomás Hurtado, pastor. “Our patron saint is honored in our weekend Masses and we have a day of social events that include different activities for the whole family.”
The 50th anniversary celebration began St. Augustine Day last year and concluded St. Augustine Day this year with a gala Aug. 23 and bilingual Mass with Bishop John Noonan Aug. 25. During the year there were various spiritual, social and outreach activities in which the the community participated.
“At the gala, we had the presence of some of the priests who have served during these 50 years and a video to thank, remember and honor those who founded our parish and to celebrate many others who still continue to make the history of this parish,” Father Hurtado said. “At the bilingual Mass, in communion with our bishop, we gave thanks for this time and we asked the Lord to continue pouring blessings into our community.”
Simonelli appreciated the opportunity to celebrate the place that has been such a significant part of her life. It is the place where her four sons received the Sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, First Communion and Confirmation and where her parents’ funeral Masses were both held. For her, the highlight of the golden anniversary year, was seeing how the community came together to make it so special.
“I wasn’t able to raise money from businesses for our anniversary. All of the generosity came from the parish. People gave of themselves, time, talent and treasure,” remarked Simonelli. “It’s just a really giving parish. The community is the highlight, and getting to experience that in every aspect.”
Father Hurtado echoed Simonelli’s sentiments when reflecting on the parish’s growth from 60 faithful families in 1969 to a vibrant parish of more than 1,450 families in 2019.
“I believe that what makes St. Augustine Parish special is that it is a very welcoming community. We are a medium-size parish and that makes our parishioners and visitors feel close and united to each other when worshiping the Lord,” Hurtado said. “We want to be a family. We are all St. Augustine.”