Saint Peter Catholic Parish began as a small and welcoming parish shortly after Mr. John H. Kelly, a Pensacola businessman, donated 9.91 acres of property plus $50,000 to the Diocese of Saint Augustine on January 17, 1974. Bishop Paul Tanner, Bishop of Saint Augustine, accepted the property located just north of U.S. Highway 98 and 2.5 miles west of Hurlburt Field in south Okaloosa County. This property was given to the Diocese in memory of his parents, Peter W. and Molly P. Kelly. The stipulation in the deed was that a church had to be built on the property within five years or the property would revert to the Kelly Estate. Mr Kelly also requested that the new church and parish be named Saint Peter.
Bishop Tanner appointed Father James K. Bluett to be the founding pastor on August 29, 1975 with the Bishop offically establishing the Parish on October 1, 1975. Father Bluett`s residence, at the Cedars Condonminium was his home, Parish Office and location for the celebration of daily Mass.
Six days after the Parish was established, His Holiness, Pope Paul VI, created a new diocese in the Sunshine State. What was once the newest parish in the Diocese of Saint Augustine became the newest parish in the new, fifth diocese of Florida, the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallhassee, on October 7, 1975. Bishop Rene H. Gracida, auxiliary Bishop of Miami, was appointed by Pope Paul VI to be the founding Diocesan Bishop. This new diocese in the panhandle would be the largest geographically in the state, 14,044 square miles with the smallest Catholic population at 34,000.
It was essential to establish boundaries for the new parish in southwest Okaloosa County. Based upon the recommendations of Fr. Bluett, a committee of parishioners and diocesan officials, Bishop Gracida established the boundaries using the parameters of the Gulf of Mexico in the south, the Range of the Eglin Reservation in the north and west and the city limits of Mary Esther, Florida. Today, the western boundary is the Okaloosa County line, although the majority of parishioners live in south Santa Rosa County, many north and west of Highway 87.
The parish quickly grew from a nucleus of fifty to over three hundred families when the Church was dedicated on April 19, 1979. Although the parish was without a Church building to call its own for four years, the parish family was very close knit. A door-to-door census, within our boundaries, was undertaken to locate and personally welcome all Catholics to this newest parish.
The sacramental life of the new parishioners was a priority. The Mary Esther Elementary School cafeteria served as our temporary Sunday worship home from the first days until the Church was built. The cafeteria accommodated our weekly gathering. However, concern that the cafeteria would not be large enough to hold the expected Easter Sunday Mass crowd, the parishioners proposed an outdoor Mass at Liza Jackson Park in Fort Walton Beach for our first Easter 1976. Msgr. Patrick Cunningham, then pastor of St. Mary Parish in Fort Walton Beach, gave permission for our fledgling parish to cross over into St. Mary’s territory to celebrate our first Easter “Mass on the Grass.” This Easter celebration continued at this location for ten more years with the parishioners offering refreshments, fellowship and building our reputation as a welcoming and very friendly family.
The conferral of sacraments began almost immediately with Donnie Dineen receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist, or first First Communicant on December 25, 1975 according to the Parish register. Stephen Kirby and Jacqueline Hagan were joined in the Sacrament of Matrimony on April 3, 1976. The nuptial liturgy was held at the Hurlburt Field Chapel. April 4, 1976 is the date April Rene Nolan received the Sacrament of Baptism. Her baptism and all that followed were held in the family’s home until our Church was built. By September 1976 religious education classes were organized under the direction of Jenny McCarron and held in family homes. Bishop Gracida celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation with our first “class” on March 7, 1977 at the Mary Esther Elementary School.
May 21, 1978 was another “Red Letter Day” for the Parish. Young and old turned out on the property site for the groundbreaking of the new Church. Everyone present had the opportunity to turn a spadeful of earth beginning the structural foundation of St. Peter Catholic Church. The rectory was still located at the Cedars, but in October of 1978 Bay Area Vocational School auctioned off three vacation cottages built by its students. Our bid was accepted and the parish had a ready-built rectory moved on to the property.
Eleven months after groundbreaking for the new Church came its dedication. Bishop Gracida presided at the Mass for the Dedication of the Church on April 19, 1979. Along with the Bishop and Father James Bluett were area priests and a variety of Father Bluett`s brothers and an uncle who were priests.
Our history has been enriched by the presence of two permanent deacons. Richard Brown was ordained a deacon in May 1980 and David Robinson in May 1981. Each brought to the Parish gifts and talents, piety, kindness and devotion. Our Lord called to eternity Deacon Brown on February 20, 1990.
We had a permanent Church, a residence for the pastor and Parish Office by April 1979, but our children were still scattered about family homes for religious education. The parish acquired two surplus Air Force buildings in the spring of 1980 which were moved onto the property. Parishioners spent long, hot months turning them into Parish Office and classrooms. Bishop Gracida returned to the parish in December 1980 to dedicate these buildings. These buildings are still in use today.
A change in pastors occurred in September 1983, Father Bluett returned to active duty with the U.S. Army and Monsignor James Amos became our second pastor. He was with us all too short a time, but among his many contributions was the initiation of the Book of Life containing the names of deceased parishioners, family and friends. This book is placed in the sanctuary of the Church during the month of the Holy Souls and those listed are remembered in all the November Masses. Once Bishop J. Keith Symons, or second bishop, learned of Msgr. Amos’ keen administrative skills, he asked him to become the Rector of the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More, Tallahassee, effective January 1984.
Father Edward A. Kirby, who had been the founding pastor of St. Sylvester Parish, Tiger Point, our western parish neighbor, became our third pastor in January 1984. During his fourteen year pastorate a new parish rectory was built and dedicated on May 5, 1986 by Bishop Symons. The original was destroyed by fire on February 1, 1986. St. Patrick’s Day Dinner Dances, Oktoberfest and the initiation of “Just for Fun” bingo and lunch for our senior citizens were just a few of Father Kirby’s contributions. We dedicated an outdoor prayer area highlighted by a statue of our Blessed Mother in May 1987. To the joy of all, the Church and Rectory loans were retired. We were debt free and savings began for Father Kirby’s special project – a Parish Center which was dedicated on September 17, 1994 by Bishop John M. Smith, our third bishop. Father Kirby was of particular solace to the aged, the sick and the dying. Father retired on February 6, 1998 to his much loved cottage in Limerick, Ireland.
Our fourth pastor, Father Joseph P. Callipare, arrived on February 21, 1998 from St. Paul Parish in Pensacola. At that time our parish membership was approximately 225 families and today our number has grown to over 350 families. One of Father’s first feats (with the help of a bequest from a deceased parishioner, Jan Hager, and the sacrifices of the living parishioners) was to pay off the Parish Center loan on March 27, 1998. We were out of the red once again! Early in his tenure, Father Callipare initiated what is affectionately known as his “Holy Hit List” which, on a week by week basis, allows him to visit, a few at a time, our parishioners in their homes.
Our Parish family has become involved in many activities: the complete renovation of the Church, inside and outside, and the parish grounds, special Parish suppers during Advent and Lent, Sunday morning socials, child care during Mass, and the first ever Vacation Bible School in June 1998. Our Faith Formation classes, directed by Teresa McClure, and taught by many dedicated men and women volunteers, are larger than ever. One 10:30 Sunday Mass each month is highlighted by the special participation of our youth. Every other Sunday our little ones enjoy their own presentation of the Liturgy of the Word during the 10:30 Mass. Adult Education and RCIA are growing under the guidance of Deacon David Robinson. Liturgical programs such as Altar Servers, Lectors, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, Musicians, Ushers and Sacristans have representation from all ages of our parish family. The diocesan women’s spiritual program, Mornings of Meditation and Study (MOMS), formed a Parish chapter in January 1999. The Legion of Mary, formed in the earliest days of the parish, continues to support the spiritual endeavors of our parish. Our Parish continues to grow with our latest addition of a Pastoral Center which supports our education and administration needs.
Our present pastor, Fr. Paul White, arrived on June 29, 2005 from St. Anne Parish in Marianna and St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Chipley.