The advent of World War II brought an influx of people to Panama City and into other parts of BayCounty as well. Some came because of military assignment to the then growing Tyndall Air Field: others came because of the jobs created to support the military effort. But not all jobs were related to the Army Air Corps. Workers were also needed at the Wainwright Shipyard at which liberty ships were built to transport military personnel and supplies. These workers not only had physical needs which must be met, but also spiritual ones. Bishop Thomas J. Toolen of the Mobile-Birmingham Diocese was asked to supply a priest on a regular basis to conduct services for the shipyard workers close to their place of work.
Father Joseph Baker of the Congregation of the Resurrection, who had been serving in the Diocese at the mission church of Our Lady of Grace, was assigned to celebrate Mass for the shipyard workers. These early Masses were celebrated in a recreation hall near the shipyard. Naturally, this could be done only after the recreation hall was cleaned up from the previous night’s dance.
During this time discussions were held with Bishop Toolen as to the possibility of establishing a parish in the area. Some years earlier their had been a mission church known as St. Andrew’s, but it was destroyed by fire and was never rebuilt. Ultimately, Bishop Toolen decided upon a two block site for the new parish. Some of the land was donated and the balance was purchased.
Construction of the original church began in April of 1944. Beneath a roof of red clay tiles and chandeliers which came from a Marianna Florida Hotel, that was used as winter quarters for circus performers, the church was opened for a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in 1945. It was some time after this that the building was totally completed and could be used for services on a regular basis. Using materials from government surplus, Fr. Baker oversaw the construction of the rectory and parish hall both of which were completed by 1950. Fathers Baker and Furmanek lived in what is now the garage of the old church.
After ten years of spiritual as well as physical labor for Fathers Joe Baker, Joseph Furmanek and Steve Juda, the church, rectory and parish hall were formally dedicated by Bishop Toolen on Palm Sunday, March 29, 1953.
The school officially opened on September 15, 1958. There were five Sisters of the Resurrection when school began, living in a small house nearby. On January 25, 1959, St. John’s school was dedicated.The convent would be built during 1960 and would be dedicated on January 21, 1961.
At the time school opened, school comprised only the first five grades. There were 132 children enrolled. Each following year, a new grade was opened so that by 1962, it had developed into an eight-year elementary school with a ninth grade added later. The sisters not only taught at St. John’s school but also taught catechism on Saturday mornings at Our Lady of Grace Mission Parish which served the African-American population of Panama City.
The history of St. John’s would not be complete without reference to Our Lady of Grace School on Martin Luther King Blvd. The formal opening of this school took place in September 1962 with grades one and two. By 1966, all eight grades were being taught in four classrooms. They were taught by the Resurrection Sisters who traveled from St. John’s. Many students and families were given spiritual, financial and educational assistance over the period of the ministry to this parish. The school was closed in June 1971 at the request of Bishop Paul Tanner, bishop of St. Augustine. The building on Martin Luther King Blvd. is now used by Catholic Social Services as a clothing outlet.
Under the leadership of its first pastors, Fr. Joe Baker, Fr. Leonard Prusinski, and Fr. Joe Bartkowicz, St. John’s Parish grew (1945-1970). By 1970, the church served some 200 families. A Parish Council was formed by Father Joe Bartkowicz. During his leadership the parish calibrated its 25th anniversary in 1970. This celebration was held at the Panama City Marina. In 1971 Father Casimir Tadla became pastor with Father Jerry Watt as associate pastor. Together they set in motion the changes prescribed by the Second Vatican Council. A new sense of community and a spirit of openness developed in the light of Pope John XXIII’s call to open the windows of change. In the summer of 1972 Deacon Gene Majewski came to work at the parish. It was with his assistance that the folk choir was started.
Among the many movements that came from Vatican II was the Charismatic Renewal. In 1975 under Fr. Casey Tadla, Fr. Mike Mas, some parishioners as well as members of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, the first Charismatic prayer group was formed. This was the beginning of the Earthen Vessels Prayer Group. It is still a vital part of St. John’s.
During the summer month’s seminarians from the Congregation of the Resurrection came to work in the parish. They assisted at conducting bible classes and discussion groups. Because of the influence of the seminarians and encouraging parishioners, five young men from the parish entered studies for the priesthood. Two young men were ordained: Father Anthony Bus (1984) and Father Gary Hogan (1986).
In November of 1975, without having ever moved, St. John’s found itself in its third Diocese; the newly formed Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. The first Bishop was The Most Reverend Rene Gracida. In 1977 Father Ken Bratko was installed as pastor. Fr. Ken encouraged a spirit of community and involvement by the parishioners. Fr. Frank Grzechowiak followed Fr. Bratko as administrator until the arrival of Fr. Norbert Raszeja in January 1979.
Shortly thereafter Fr. Norb was asked to teach in the permanent diaconate program of the Diocese. He also conducted Tuesday morning bible studies. Fr. Pat Rylko would arrive in May 1979 and prove to be an energetic person with a zest for life. Shortly after his arrival, Fr. Pat was diagnosed with leukemia. His love for life had a big impact on the parish, as did his death a few short years later. Newly ordained Fr. Jerry Twarog joined the parish as an associate pastor in 1982 for the first of his two appointments to the parish. Fr. Jerry enjoyed conducting adult education classes on Sunday mornings. Between his two appointments, Fr. Ed Dubel & Fr. John Klek proved to be capable associate pastors who had a positive influence upon the parish and its spiritual growth.
During these years while the population of Bay County and Panama City grew, St. John’s parish also continued to grow. Two permanent deacons, the late Dn. William Johnson and Dn. Dale Johnson, joined the staff at St. John’s. The hall was expanded with new kitchen and bathroom facilities; the school was consolidated into one campus with the additions of more classrooms and a faculty lounge. Furthermore, two lots next to the convent were purchased for a future site of either a parking facility or a parish center. Likewise, a building committee was started and permission from Bishop Keith Symons was obtained to present preliminary plans and drawings for a new church structure.
After more than seven years as pastor at St. John’s, Fr. Norbert was elected to the Provincial Council of the Congregation of the Resurrection and transferred to Chicago. Fr. Richard Patulski became pastor in the fall of 1986. Within two short months Fr. Richard had captured the heart of St. John’s parish but his sudden death stunned all of the parishioners.
Father Dennis Sanders came to St. John’s as pastor in 1987. There was hope that he would be able to pursue the building of a new church; however, after six months Fr. Dennis was transferred toRome where he held the position of Assistant General.
Father Richard Grek was the next appointed pastor. Fr. Grek’s first task was the building of a new church. Immediately he began to work with the original building committee and with the building commission of the Diocese. Father Michael Gerst came to St. John’s as associate pastor. He saw a need for an outreach program to help the poor and homeless in the Panama City area. The Association of St. Jude was formed and became an integral part of the parish and community ofBay County. Deacon Earl Muris would return to the parish and join ministry at St. John’s.
In December of 1990 the actual construction of the new church began. The first Mass was celebrated in August 1991. The Most Reverend John Smith of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahasseeformally dedicated the church on October 19, 1991.
Father Don Suberlak replaced Fr. Mike Gerst as associate and in 1992 Fr. Don became pastor when Fr. Grek was transferred back to Chicago. John Kreppein, a parishioner, was ordained a permanent deacon and joined the parish staff. In 1992 Fr. Martin Bratek became the associate pastor at St. John’s.
After twenty-seven years of dedicated service as parish secretary, Joan Redman would retire in August 1994. A warm celebration of “Thanks” was celebrated at various times and places by the parishioners.
The fiftieth anniversary of St. John’s Parish was celebrated in October 1995 with a Mass followed by a reception at the Marina Civic Center. The Mass was concelebrated by Bishop John Smith as well as several priests who had been associated with St. John’s over the past fifty years. It was truly a very joyful and memorable event for all.
We received word early in 1996 that we would soon be losing the Sisters who had so faithfully served the school and parish for so many years. Sr. Mary Therese, Sr. Laurenta, and Sr. Laura leftPanama City in June and returned to Chicago for reassignment. Their leaving left a tremendous void in the school and parish. That void was soon filled, in part, by Sally Lorei who came to us from the Lakeland area to assume the position of school principal. Under her leadership school continues to grow spiritually, academically and in the area of athletics. Miss Lorei retired in 2002, and she was replaced by Dr. Tom Collins beginning in the 2002-2003 school year.
Father Don Suberlak left St. John’s to become pastor of a parish in Michigan. He was replaced by Father Martin Bratek who had served as associate pastor. Father Marty was soon joined by Father Jerzy Zieba (Fr. George) who became the associate pastor. They were both officially installed in October 1998.
Deacon Dale Johnson who had been on staff as director of religious education, and most recently as plant facility manager, resigned in December, 1999. Although he was no longer on the parish staff, he continued to serve as a deacon, along with Deacon Earl Mirus and three parishioners, Sal Cirabisi, Ron L’Huillier, and John Renick who were ordained permanent deacons in May 2000. Deacon Sal and Deacon Ron were reassigned to St. Dominick, and John Kreppein, who had been a deacon with the parish since 1992, accepted a position as administrator for a parish in Maine and left in June to assume his new position. Deacon Dale was reassigned to St. Bernadette Parish onPanama City Beach.
The school hosted its first reunion in May 2000, and the event was a huge success. Along with many former students, it was also attended by several of the Sisters who had served here over the years.
The Jubilee Year 2000 brought forth many blessings on our parish and certainly one of the highlights was the remodeling of the sanctuary. Since shortly after his arrival at St. John’s, Fr. George worked very diligently on this project, and in the early part of the year his design was accepted by Fr. Marty, the Liturgy Committee, and Parish Council. The renovations were completed by June 2000, and on the Feast of Corpus Christi the sanctuary was officially dedicated at a Mass celebrated by the Provincial of the Congregation of the Resurrection, Rev. John Nowak. Soon after this very joyous occasion we learned that Fr. George would be leaving St. John’s to become pastor of Resurrection Parish in Woodstock, Illinois. He left in early September and he was replaced by Fr. Andrew Lewandowski, who arrived in October. Father Andrew’s tenure was less than a year, and Father Marty served as pastor alone after Father Andrew was reassigned.
Father Andrew was replaced as associate pastor by Father Glen Baptiste, who had served at St. John’s while he was a transitional deacon. In January of 2004, the parish began the Forward With Faith building campaign, under the chairmanship of Dr. George Walters. The goal of the campaign was to raise money for a new, state-of-the-art media center for the school and a Family Life Center or the parish. The media center was blessed and dedicated in February of 2005 and is currently in use.
Progress on the Family Life Center slowed considerably in wake of two disastrous hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005. In light of enormous increases in the cost of property insurance, the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee put in place new regulations with regard to the amount of money set aside to cover insurance deductibles. This project has not been abandoned.
Father Bratek was reassigned in November of 2004, and, after serving as parish administrator for a time, Father Glen became pastor. Father Glen served alone until January of 2006, when Father Jacek Junak, formerly of St. Hyacinth Basilica in Chicago, joined him as associate pastor. Father Glen was reassigned in June 2006. In August 2006 Father George Zieba returned to St. John’s as pastor. Fr. Jacek was reassigned to Chicago in August 2007.
Since Fr. George’s return, the parish has put in place a Pastoral Plan which has identified specific goals for the parish’s continued spiritual enrichment and growth. These goals are being implemented through various parish ministries. In addition, the St. John Parish Mission Statement has been reviewed and updated by the Parish Council. Fr. George has worked with the Parish Pastoral Council, Stewardship Council and Finance Council to formalize their role in Parish life with Constitutions and By Laws. The Liturgy Committee and related liturgical ministries implemented the “General Instructions for Roman Missal.”
On November 3, 2011 Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Archbishop of Miami, appointed Rev. Roy C. Marien as administrator of St. John Catholic Church and School. This marks a transition from the fine work of the Resurrectionist Order to diocesan administration. In collaboration with the Parish Pastoral Council and Finance Council, Rev. Marien is facilitating an ongoing process in which the parish will conceive a new mission and vision statement for where the parish wishes to go in the next decade.
In June of 2012, Newly-installed Bishop Gregory Parkes for the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee appointed Rev. Marien Pastor of St. John Catholic Parish, with continuing administrative responsibilities for St. John Catholic School.
On July 1, 2016, Rev. Kevin McQuone was appointed Administrator for St. John Catholic Church and School by Bishop Gregory Parkes for the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee.
St John’s continues to grow as a dynamic Catholic Community. Its growth flows from the active participation of its dedicated and vibrant parishioners. Today there are nearly 399 registered families. We are grateful for God’s blessings and presence. We pray for God’s continued grace and blessings on our parish family.