After 16 years as pastor of The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, Father John Baker announces his retirement. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

“Rousing” isn’t an adjective typically used to describe a Catholic Mass, with its solemn traditions of scripture, sacrament, prayer and hymns. The choir doesn’t clap with rhythmic gusto, and congregants don’t punctuate a booming sermon with encouraging shouts of “Amen” and “preach.”

That being said, each Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea on March 17 ended with, yes, a rousing standing ovation, prolonged and enthusiastic applause from an appreciative congregation.

It was at these Masses that Father John Baker, the church’s pastor for the past 16 years, announced his impending retirement, prompted, he said, by the early stages of memory decline.

HIs official retirement date was March 25, but Baker will remain in residence at the church rectory on Windsor Lane until June, said longtime Deacon Peter Batty, who has served the parish for more than 25 years.

His replacement will be up to the Archdiocese of Miami, and is not yet known.

“Father wants to stay in Key West beyond that, and I believe we can make that happen,” Batty said, adding one of his favorite memories of his time working alongside the popular priest.

“Father and I were walking back to the church from the school one day, and a little kid pointed at me and asked his friend, ‘Who is that guy?’ The friend pointed at me and said, ‘That’s Father John’s little helper.’ Since 2007, I have been Father John’s ‘little helper.’”

The height disparity between the two men — Batty towers over Baker, as many people do — makes both of them laugh at the irony.

Despite his small stature, Father John Baker, who will turn 70 next year, maintains the deep and resonant voice of the radio man he once was.

Baker spent much of his childhood growing up “everywhere” because his father was in the Air Force. When he retired, the family settled in Rhode Island, where Baker, as an adult, worked as a radio news broadcaster.

He was nearing 30 when he joined the priesthood, having experienced life and career in the secular world.

He served in parishes in Rhode Island, where there’s a large Portuguese population, though he admits to having forgotten much of the language he once knew well enough to say Mass, hear confessions and converse with his parishioners. 

“I always took to heart the tenet of the church that states, ‘Everyone is welcome to worship in the house of the Father in the tongue of their mother,’” he said on a recent afternoon while walking the church’s eight acres along Truman Avenue.

Situated as it is at the end of U.S. 1, Baker said, he has worked hard to include all the cultures that call Key West home.

“We have a Haitian Creole prayer group and a Spanish Mass, obviously,” he said. “We’re here to serve, and if we say no to someone, there’s no alternative Catholic church for 33 miles.”

From Rhode Island, he moved to churches in Plantation and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, finally arriving in Key West in January 2007.

“This is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere,” Baker told the Keys Weekly, pointing out the native landscaping in the rectory’s backyard, and the original paintings by local artists that hang in his office. “People learned that I liked to paint — pastels over acrylic — so I’ve been blessed with some tremendous artwork over the years.”

When he arrived in Key West, the parish was named, simply, St. Mary Star of the Sea.

The basilica designation would come later, after an arduous, years-long accreditation process that had just started when Baker arrived. 

In the Roman Catholic churches, a basilica is a title of honor given to church buildings that are distinguished either by their antiquity or by their association with a major saint.

“The Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea is granted the privilege of displaying the coat of arms of Vatican City on its facade and the crossed keys of St. Peter on all its furnishings and liturgical appointments,” states the church’s website.

“In completing the petition to be designated a basilica, is when I fell in love with this place,” Baker said. “We dug through history and had to separate facts from all the fiction and lore that comes to define so much of Key West.”

Also during his tenure, the parish’s Catholic school grew in enrollment and once again includes a high school, which had closed in the 1980s or ’90s. 

Every student at the Basilica School knows Baker by name and approaches him eagerly to tell him of their latest test score, or, in one case, to ask innocently, if the white T-shirt and black pants he typically wears was “his uniform.”

“When I think of Fr. John Baker, I think of 1 Corinthians 9, because  he is certainly a man who has become ‘all things to all,’” said Robert Wright, principal of the Basilica School. “Meeting people where they are, and to call them to holiness. This is authentic evangelization. As a school administrator, he is everything you could hope for. He truly understands that the youth are not just the future of the Church; they are the Church now. He has been the school’s biggest advocate and you don’t have to look hard to see the fruit of his unwavering support.”

Baker spends loads of time with the students, blessing their pets at the annual Blessing of the Animals, praying before sporting events and following their scholastic achievements. 

“This is just an extraordinary place,” he said. “And it’s a place where people take care of each other. I’ve been blessed to have served as pastor for 16 years.”

Mandy Miles
Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.