Patricia Schmaltz remembers the moment when she said enough is enough.
At a midnight Mass one Christmas Eve several years ago, her pastor paused in the middle of his homily to report on the whereabouts of Santa Claus.
“Oh, dear,” she thought to herself. “It's time to find another church.”
But not another religion. Just something more reverent.
Schmaltz found what she was yearning for at Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel in Palmetto Beach. The traditional Catholic congregation – independent of the Diocese of St. Petersburg and Rome – adheres to the pre-Vatican II days of the church. Here, Mass is celebrated in Latin, the priest faces the altar and communion is never taken by hand.
It's the church Schmaltz remembers from childhood. It's where she feels Christ's presence.
From its very modest beginnings 20 years ago with about two dozen people moving from one location to another, the congregation has grown to about 150 members. Their devotion to preserving rituals practiced for two centuries and rejection of modernism is part of a steady and entrenched Catholic movement.
And Immaculate Heart has another reason to celebrate this Easter season.
After raising nearly $500,000, and three years of planning and construction, congregants have a newly built, debt-free sanctuary. The Spanish mission-style church will be consecrated April 12 with a ceremony marking a new beginning and hopeful future.
“A true miracle,” declares Schmaltz. “That's just what we have here.”
The Roman Catholic Church, still in a celebratory mood with the election of Pope Francis this month, claims about 1.2 billion members worldwide. But not all are on the same page with the Vatican.
Some disagree with the church's teachings on issues such as birth control and premarital sex. They believe priests should be able to marry; some even call for women clergy. The church is anachronistic, they say, too slow to adapt to changing times.
On the other end of the spectrum are Catholics who haven't been in sync with their denomination since the sweeping reforms led by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, which began modernizing many of the church's age-old practices in the mid-1960s.
Latin gave way to the vernacular, with Masses celebrated in the country's native language. Priests faced the congregation instead of the altar. Dress codes were discarded – women no longer had to cover their heads – and musicians started playing guitars and drums in place of the organ. The newly added “sign of peace” encouraged the faithful to shake hands with their fellow worshippers in the pew toward the end of the service.
For Jim Garcia, of Tampa, the final straw was when communion rails were removed and the people began receiving the consecrated hosts in their hands from the priest. He had been taught the host was the body of Christ. How could something so holy be treated this way?
But like Schmaltz, he was a devout Catholic. Abandoning his faith was unthinkable.
“Though it felt like it had abandoned me,” he says. “I hadn't changed. The church did.”
He wasn't alone in his distress. Some priests, in defiance of the Holy See and the dioceses where they served, offered Latin Masses with missals that pre-dated the accepted 1962 version. Splinter groups started to form, led by clergy who broke away from the reformed church. Some went so far as to say there had been no valid pope since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958.
Garcia found peace by staying with the church he knew and loved. In the late 1970s, he began driving to Spring Hill, where Latin Masses were being held. Eventually, he found fellow communicants served by traditionalist priests closer to home, from a rented space at the Hyatt in the West Shore area, to a motel in Brandon, to the Labor Temple in Ybor City.
By 1993, the group cobbled together $68,000 to purchase a former Church of Christ building on property off Stuart Street in Palmetto Beach. With its close proximity to Interstates 4, 275 and 75, it was convenient for followers who came from as far as Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Lakeland, Brandon, Town 'N Country and Wesley Chapel.
On Aug. 22 that year, on the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, they gathered for their first Mass in the location and named their congregation in her honor. They finally had a home.
It wasn't the completion of a dream for Garcia, now 77. It was just another step.
“I knew we would build our own sanctuary one day,” he recalls. “Some people thought I was a little crazy, but I had faith it would happen.”
With a permanent residence and a full-time priest, the flock grew, slowly and steadily. John Konzelmann, 43, was among them.
He had grown up with the Novus Ordo (New Mass), but he ached for something more meaningful. He says “through the grace of God” he found it at Immaculate Heart seven years ago.
“It's traditional, it's valid and it's real,” he says of the Latin Mass, which the church used for 2,000 years. “When I come here Sunday mornings, I don't think about my grocery list or work. I focus on the sacrament. And when I leave, I feel recharged and ready for what life throws at me.”
He and others bought into Garcia's vision. And they all agreed: Even if they could get a bank loan, they didn't want one. In the old days, churches were built by the sweat of the people and paid for along the way. They would be beholden to no one.
A retired accountant, Garcia kept diligent records, publishing Immaculate Mary's finances every week in the church bulletin. Though many members are of modest means or on fixed incomes, they sacrificed and dug deeper into their pockets. And they prayed.
Four years ago, Garcia met architect William Dobson at a Palmetto Beach Community Center meeting. He was impressed with Dobson's credentials, which included several church projects.
Dobson was equally impressed by the congregation's passion and diligence. He took on the job to design the new sanctuary. He calls it one of the “most rewarding” projects he had ever worked on in his 27-year career.
“I've traveled a lot in Europe, where there are churches on every corner,” he says. “I had an idea what they wanted.”
His concept for the building reflected the feelings of the members: an Old World Spanish mission structure with high arching wooden beams.
During the process, he learned they were not willing to sacrifice quality or to “dumb down the design” to save costs.
Ultimately, though, what could have cost $1 million only came to about half that price. When some goals seemed unattainable, congregants found a way.
One donor paid the entire $14,000 tab for a new organ. And Garcia combed the Internet, looking for bargains. He found old wooden pews in Ohio, from a closed-down church built in 1866 by coal miners, and stained glass windows, statues and tabernacles from another shuttered sanctuary in Pennsylvania. To save shipping costs, he and his brother picked them up by truck and drove them to Florida.
When they ordered Gothic lights from Virginia to hang from the ceiling, Garcia knew the church could not afford the $5,000 shipping cost. So he went up there, too, to bring them home. With his woodworking skills, he made the Stations of the Cross and carved elaborate designs into the ends of the pews.
Perhaps Garcia's most impressive find was “The Deposition,” a 1,200-pound, 7½-foot-tall sculpture created by the late artist Jakob Henry, of Clearwater. The statue, made of white Georgia manmade marble and valued at $50,000, had been left to Henry's daughter, Rachel Krause, who was charged with giving it away to the right home.
After reading a 2008 story in The Tampa Tribune about her search for a recipient, Garcia was one of many who expressed an interest in obtaining “The Deposition.” He told Krause about Immaculate Mary and its future plans for a new sanctuary. We'll put it in the front entrance, he told her; it will be the first thing people see when they arrive and the last when they leave.
Krause says her decision to bequeath her father's impressive work to a church not yet built was truly a leap of faith. Now that Garcia's promise has become a reality, she knows that powers bigger than herself were at work.
“This was my dad's masterpiece. It was his legacy,” she says. “But I never knew what he had envisioned for it until I saw it hanging in the church. It was as if he was right there with me, saying, 'This is perfect. Well done.' ”
Followers of the traditionalist movement do so without the church's blessing.
According to Deacon Rick Wells, a vice chancellor with the Diocese of St. Petersburg and canon lawyer, those who leave communion with the Roman Pontiff, fully aware of their action and its consequences, have committed a “schismatic act.”
He noted that the diocese does support four churches that celebrate the approved Latin Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal: the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg, St. Anthony of Padua in San Antonio, St. Theresa in Spring Hill and Incarnation in Tampa.
The versions used by independent churches like Immaculate Heart are “no longer recognized as valid” by the Catholic Church, Wells says.
“One might be attracted to a particular style of worship,” he says, “but is it worth separating from the Holy Father and the bishops, which have continued in unbroken succession down through the centuries, since the time of the apostles?”
Local WFLA-AM radio personality Tedd Webb says that though he went to Catholic schools and served as an altar boy, “I basically left the church in my heart after 1963. That's when everything went to hell in a hand basket.”
The long dry spell came to an end a few months ago when a co-worker convinced him to attend a Mass at Immaculate Heart. Right away, Webb felt like he had come home.
“Fits me like a glove. This is the church I loved and remembered. You could go anywhere in the world and Mass would be the same everywhere, in Latin and with the reverence it is due,” he says.
“I had given up hope that I would ever be spiritually in touch again.”
Webb says he's been battling serious health issues for the last decade. Now he feels as though he's in a place that “when I get that call to the bullpen from God, I'm ready to go.”
Frank Wuco, the co-worker who told Webb about the chapel, says he and his wife part ways on Sundays: She goes to a diocesan church, and he heads to Immaculate Mary. He says he could not accept all the “ever-changing novelties, liturgical abuses and other scandals” in the post-Vatican II church, and is much more comfortable worshipping in the quiet and solemnity of the Latin Mass.
The notion that Catholics must be obedient to everything that comes out of Rome is something that Wuco no longer accepts.
“My wish is that independent movements would be accepted back into the fold,” he says. “Protestant churches are more welcomed by the church than we are. All we've done is dig inside grandma's attic and found treasures that had been put away and nearly forgotten. To us, this is the real thing.”
These are the stories that Father Emilio Fattore, the pastor, hears all the time.
The young Argentine priest, 33, is from the St. Louis King of France religious order, based in his native country. His small community – with four priests, two brothers and one seminarian – has a canonical lineage to the late Archbishop Thuc, a leader in the Traditionalist Catholic movement who was excommunicated and reconciled with Rome several times.
Though he and the pope hail from the same country, they are on different paths, Fattore says.
“I can't obey him unless he corrects all that is wrong,” he says. “This is a position I wish I didn't have to take, but it is one I have to take. We hope someday that the right person will come and clean up the mess.”
Instead, Fattore focuses on his congregants, a group he considers family and exemplifies “faith, hope, love and charity.” His youth is an advantage for his workload -- three Sunday Masses, baptisms, weddings, confessions, funerals and serving as a spiritual director. Unlike diocesan priests, who are routinely transferred to other parishes every few years by their bishops, he expects to be here for the long haul.
That's how the old church used to do it. And the old ways suit him just fine.
“Through the goodness of God and the effort of his people,” the priest says, “we have a new home. This is an Easter we will never forget.”