St Paul’s Church was formed by an official act of the City Council of Key West. In a petition to the bishop of New York, the city council requested a priest be sent and the Parish of St. Paul’s be established. In 1831, the council gave notice of a public meeting to establish an Episcopal Church, and a committee was appointed.
The first rector was the Reverend Sanson K. Brunot, who arrived December 23, 1832. He held the first service on Christmas Day 1832 in the County Courthouse on Jackson Square. That same day the congregation signed an “Act of Association” of the Episcopal Congregation in Key West to be called St Paul’s Church.
The first Vestry was elected April 8, 1833, and the Reverend Brunot became a permanent house guest of Vestryman William Whitehead, as there was no rectory or church building. Land for a church site was given by the widow of John William Charles Fleming in 1832 with the only stipulation that her husband’s remains stay where they were. He is still buried on the grounds, but the actual site is unknown.
The original church made of coral rock, was built in 1838-39. The building, when completed, was 38 x 58 feet, and the total cost of construction was $6,500. This first building was totally destroyed by a hurricane on October 11, 1846. The second church was a wooden structure measuring 28 x 66 feet. Services were first held in this building on June 30, 1848, and the church was consecrated on January 4, 1851, by the Right Reverend C.E. Gadsden, Bishop of South Carolina.
In 1857 a rectory was erected on the corner of Duval and Eaton Street, facing Eaton. The Reverend Osgood E. Herrick was the first in a long line of rectors to call it home. The church was growing steadily, and the seating capacity of 350 was becoming inadequate. This is when St Peter’s was established (1875), and the Spanish Mission of St John’s followed.
The second church was destroyed in the Great Fire of Key West in March 1886. By some good fortune the rectory survived undamaged. Rebuilding the church began immediately, and the third church was completed in 1887. Constructed of wood, it stood in the center of the block with the doors facing Eaton Street. It measured approximately 58 x 98 feet.
In 1890, the Vestry voted to purchase a chime of bells. Once installed, the first chime of bells in Florida was inaugurated on Palm Sunday morning, March 22, 1891, at 10:00 am.
On October 11, 1909, another disaster struck, and the church was destroyed by a hurricane. The parish hall (completed in 1904) and the rectory survived the storm and were used for services. Plans for a new church, which would be constructed of concrete, were approved in 1911. The church would be located at the corner of Duval and Eaton Streets. This required the moving of the rectory to its current location in 1914. The first service in the current building was held June 8, 1919. During this time, many of the beautiful stained-glass windows were ordered, and installation began in 1920. The organ arrived in 1931 in time for Christmas services.
A major restoration of the current church building began in 1991 to save the building from collapse. The concrete used in the initial construction had been mixed with seawater and beach sand, causing the steel reinforcing within the walls and columns to split. Work was completed in 1993 at a cost of nearly one million dollars.
In the 2020s, over a century into its life, the historic nave of St Paul’s is again in need of a major restoration. The first chime of bells in Florida is silent because both the bell tower and the platform upon which the bells rest are structurally unsound. The historic rectory and the parish hall are also in need of significant restoration and repair.
This oldest US congregation south of St Augustine has been served by dozens of priests throughout almost two centuries. The thirty-fourth rector of St Paul’s is the Very Reverend Donna S. Mote, PhD, who began her tenure June 5, 2021.
The church building and grounds at the corner of Duval and Eaton Streets are open daily for prayer, meditation, and visitation. As a beautiful and beloved venue for concerts and community events as well as worship, St Paul’s is an iconic and historic community asset stewarded by the congregation for the enrichment and enjoyment of everyone, now and always, in the heart and the hearts of Key West.