I usually research and write these posts, but I found there wasn’t much to add as extensive research has already been done on the school, church, and the Catholic community of Fort Pierce by members of the Bureau of Historic Preservation. The following is taken from a registration form for nominating properties for the National Register of Historic places which was submitted in July 2000.
It’s also best to note that the building received new windows in August 2014, so these photos are old. I don’t know how the building looks inside now, but I hope work has begun on its interior as well.
Although it had been organized just three years earlier, in 1914 the small Roman Catholic parish of St. Anastasia decided to build an impressive parochial school to serve the children of the approximately thirty Catholic families in Fort Pierce and others residing between Titusville and Vero Beach. Although the 1900 census recorded no Catholics in Fort Pierce, by 1906 there were 26 families in the area. Father Michael J. Curley, the pastor of St. Peter’s in DeLand—150 miles northwest of Fort Pierce—made bi-monthly visits to the community to celebrate mass. Ceremonies were held in the town hall and the homes of the worshipers. One of persons in Fort Pierce attending services was a winter visitor named James P. McNichol, a Philadelphia building contractor and owner of the W.J. McNichol Brothers firm. In 1908, McNichol purchased a city block of land near the western limits of Fort Pierce and paid for the construction of a wooden church (cost unknown).
Three years later, he paid $5,000 for the construction of a rectory, and in 1914 provided $6,000 to build a school and convent. The parish was named St. Anastasia in honor of McNichols’ deceased first wife. The first pastor of the church was Father Rupert Gabriel (1910-1929). Gabriel was born in Gall, Switzerland on April 3, 1868. He was schooled in the Order of St. Benedict at St. Meinrad Academy in Indiana. He was ordained in 1894 at St. Boniface in New Orleans and took his vows in 1897, at which time he was assigned to St. Augustine in Florida. During his pastorate in Fort Pierce, St. Anastasia changed from a missionary outpost to a nuclear parish serving a 4,400 square mile area that reached from Titusville, approximately 60 miles to the north, to Lake Okeechobee, about 50 miles to the southwest. In 1910, Father Gabriel counted 93 Catholics in Fort Pierce, including 34 children. When the school was completed in 1914, it had no teachers or students and stood empty for its first five years.
In 1919, the public school on Delaware Street burned, and the parish lent the county the use of its school building rent-free for the next six years. The original wooden church was torn down in 1923, and the school was used for religious services. A new church was built on the Catholic lot in 1925. In the fall of 1926, three Dominican nuns arrived from the motherhouse in Adrian, Michigan. The order had been invited to the St. Augustine Diocese by Bishop Patrick Barry in 1923 when a parochial school was initiated at St. Ann’s in West Palm Beach. Fifty-two children were registered in September 1926 for the first classes, grades one through eight, and in November, the enrollment was increased by 25%. The school became the central part of church life.
At the start of 1927, the church had a debt of $48,000. In 1929, Father Gabriel retired because of poor health and was replaced by his assistant, Pastor Michael Beerhalter, who guided the church and school through the difficult period of the Great Depression. In 1930, there were 53 pupils attending St. Anastasia Catholic School. In 1932, a ninth grade was added to the school, and in 1936, the first high school class was graduated. Tuition was three dollars a month during the 1930s, but the church absorbed the cost of children whose parents could not pay.
With financial help from Mother Gerad Barry, sister of Bishop Barry and Superior of the Adrian Dominicans, a black school, Blessed St. Martin’s was established in the African-American section of Fort Pierce. She made a $5,000 donation. Two nuns were assigned as teachers to St. Martin’s. The Catholic Church was the only white church in town permitting “colored people” to attend. At first, there was a separate bench in the back of the
sanctuary reserved for blacks. It was marked by a sign on the wall that said “For Colored.” Assistant Pastor Michael Beerhalter, a foe of racial segregation, had the sign removed, but the only Negro Catholic family in town at the time continued to sit there out of force of habit. St. Martin’s remained open from the 1930s to 1962 when it was integrated with St. Anastasia, a courageous move at the time.
In the 1950s, there were about 400 families in the parish. School enrollment in 1951 was 201. The growing population of the parish required planning for a new facility. George Guetller, a wealthy parishioner, offered 20 acres located at Orange Avenue and 33rd Street for the construction of a new school. The Diocese of Miami was created on October 7, 1958 and included Fort Pierce. In that year, the parish had 700 families. The elementary school had an enrollment of 700 students and the high school had 120. A new church school auditorium was opened on April 29, 1960 at the new 33rd Street location. Elementary school students were moved there. The high school remained at the 1914 facility until the fall of 1965, when the remainder of the students were moved to the new St. Anastasia High School (later renamed the John H. Carroll High School). The 1914 building was leased to the local CETA program for several years, and in 1978, the Miami Diocese sold the property for $120,000. The church that had also stood on the city block occupied by the school was demolished in 1984. The old rectory and convent buildings have also been razed. New facilities were constructed on property near the high school.
On August 10th 2000, the school was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
After sustaining heavy damages from Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, the building was in a state of disrepair. In 2008, REG Architects and Summit Construction of Vero Beach LLC were hired for a structural rehabilitation of the building. They found that building was originally constructed with no vertical reinforcing and that the roof, which had portions of it blown off during the hurricanes, was literally sitting atop of the masonry walls. The old roofing was replaced with new barrel tile and recreated the look of the 1914 soffit and fascia system with aluminum profiles. The existed steel trusses were reinforced with the addition of new steel trusses, and the roof was tied down to the three floor elevations and ground below with a series of concrete helical piers.
In August 2014, all new windows were added to the school to celebrate it’s 100th birthday.