KEY WEST – In the abstract, one might think that if anyone in the American Catholic Church could be described as the “Pastor of Paradise,” it’s probably Father John Baker, who leads the Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, Florida.
After all, the island of Key West is America’s southernmost point, with year-round temperatures that never drop much below 75 and never climb much higher than 85. Every day, there’s a jaw-droppingly gorgeous sunrise over South Beach, where Tennessee Williams once swam, and every night there’s a mini-carnival on Malloy Square on the other end of the island watching the sun go back down.
With a laid-back ethos and dining options ranging from haute cuisine to cheap, fresh and fantastic, along with lively bars every half-block and some of the clearest, warmest and most sparkling waters anywhere in the world, Key West is an undeniably idyllic spot. How many places, for instance, can the local pastor bike to pretty much every engagement he’ll ever have, usually showing up in shorts and a t-shirt?
Add in the fact that the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea is among the more storied places of worship in the country, once numbering even the likes of Ernest Hemingway as an occasional parishioner, and Key West scores still higher in terms of pastoral cachet.
Baker himself, however, isn’t buying it.
“I’m not the pastor of paradise,” he said in a Nov. 11 interview with Crux. “I think that’s Jesus Christ. I’m the pastor of Key West and environs, and that’s enough.”
In all reality, Baker said, beneath the glittery façade of Key West as a fantasy-land lies real poverty and need, often forcing his parish and the wider community to scramble in response.
Of course, one could equally well make an argument that Baker actually has one of the toughest gigs in the American Church, given Key West’s notorious reputation as “Sin City East.”
An annual “Fantasy Fest,” for example, features a “Kinky Carnival” (replete with collars, leashes, electro-stimulation and even flogging stations), “Air Sex Championships” (in which participants compete to deliver the best pantomime of a sex act set to music) and a “Womankind’s Brazaar” (enough said).
Drag bars here are legendary among connoisseurs of such things, and just a block from the original location of the church stands a three-level drinking establishment with a “clothing-optional” policy at the top.
The thing is, Baker’s not really buying his job as hardship duty either.
“Key West is actually a big family place,” he said. “We have five military installations. There’s a lot of faith here.”
“The Tourist Development Council of the Florida Keys may be promoting Key West a certain way to attract a certain demographic, but a lot of the tourists who come here aren’t engaged in that,” he insisted.
The idea of Key West as Sin City, he said, “is a reputation that’s there, but it’s certainly not the whole picture.”
In a place that can often feel a little surreal, in other words, Baker is a determined realist – Key West may not be paradise, in his eyes, but it’s not the inferno either.
The lone departure from clear-eyed realism on Baker’s record may have come in a 2017 interview in which he was asked his one wish for Key West, and he responded that bars would close at 11:00 p.m. First of all, bars here likely would never close if they didn’t have to; and second, on Keys time, 11:00 p.m. is more or less midday.
A native of Rhode Island, Baker grew up an Army brat and has called many different places home. He’s been in Key West for 13 years now, clearly proud of the engaged community one finds at St. Mary Star of the Sea, the oldest Catholic parish in the Archdiocese of Miami. (The parish actually predates the archdiocese by more than a century.)
Even beyond the place’s Bacchanalian spirit, imagine being the pastor in a place where every time you celebrate Sunday Mass, half the faces staring back at you are unfamiliar because they’re visitors. It’s sort of like ministering to the cast of “Groundhog Day,” where every day you have to repeat what happened yesterday rather than moving forward.
Yet Baker insists that both real “conchs,” meaning those born and bred on the island, and the transient population are equally engaged at St. Mary’s.
“The sense of stewardship in this parish is tremendous, both for those who live here all year long and those who are here one week, one month, three months,” Baker said proudly. “People claim it as their own, and they take care of it.”
“This is theirs. It predates me,” he said. “People here pretty much know what they want for a church, which is faith, love and service.”
Despite the obvious affluence of Key West, with a luxury resort on every corner and homes on Sunset Key generally pricing in the $3 to $7 million range, Baker said his parish nonetheless is forced to run an active social justice operation because of the equally real problem of poverty in the Keys.
“The Florida Keys, Monroe County, is the third most expensive for cost of living in the United States,” he said. “Thirty-six percent of the population lives below the threshold for affordability, and another twelve percent is below the poverty line. There’s a lot of per-diem workers.”
“So many parishioners struggle just to make ends meet,” he said, noting that a foundation launched by the parish today distributes almost 20 million tons of food annually to needy residents.
So committed is Baker to his unique flock that when Hurricane Irma menaced Key West in 2017, he and another priest refused to evacuate, insisting that they needed to stay behind to be present for those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get away.
In fact, Baker had an ace up his sleeve – a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes that stands next to the parish, which was founded by a French Canadian nun in 1922 with the promise that as long as people prayed here, the “full brunt” of a hurricane would not be felt on the island. So far, the promise has held good.
Eventually, Baker said, Catholic Charities would provide roughly $1.5 million in aid for relief and reconstruction in the Keys after Irma.
Taken all in all, Baker projects a steady calm –neither overly romantic about the beauty and beguiling culture of Key West, nor cowed by the uphill climb it can sometimes pose for the life of faith.
“The challenges are great,” he said, “but the response has been pretty magnificent to behold.”