Father Tony Mullane decides to retireBy Steve Estes
It was 26 years ago when the self-described “hippie priest” from Key West returned from an 18-month “extended walkabout” and settled into St. Peter Church on Big Pine Key.
Where Father Tony Mullane has remained.
The venerable priest who has been an icon in the Lower Keys for more than 35 years has received permission from the Archdiocese to finally hang up his cloth and retire from St. Peter Church to pursue…”not sure.”
Playing lots more golf and doing some traveling might be part of the future plans.
“You don’t plan life. It plans for you. Whatever I might plan can always be derailed by something else that takes priority,” said Mullane.
From humble beginnings at a church with just one building, a chapel, that served as combination worship center, offices and living quarters, Mullane has presided over his Big Pine congregation since 1988.
In that time, the church has grown to its current multi-building complex that includes separate living quarters for Mullane and a host of offices, a food pantry, an education center and a banquet room.
“This has been my baby for 26 years, but like any parent, there comes a time when you have to cut the apron strings and let the child make its own way in the world,” said Mullane.
For him, that time has arrived. But he’ll still be the leader of the church until at least June, although he has been granted an April 15 retirement date.
“The bishop asked me to stay on until June to give them time to find a new priest for this parish and bring him up to speed on what we do here,” said Mullane.
What he turns over is a far cry from what he found with one building and a small congregation. “This was a broken parish when I arrived here.”
“The church is now on a sound financial footing with good reserves and is very active in the community, doing the things we should be doing to enhance our community,” he said.
Mullane said he never complained about being “left” in Big Pine for those many years, although at times, “I felt like they just forgot about me as long as I wasn’t making a lot of trouble for them. It isn’t that easy to find someone in the church who can live easily in the Keys. I love the place. There’s nowhere I’d rather call home. I’ve never been anywhere longer than I’ve been here.”
Born in Ireland, where he lived for 24 years, Mullane attended the seminary and was heavily “recruited” for some of the most dicey parishes around the world. Why, he doesn’t say.
“I was almost sold on Australia where the thought of diving the Great Barrier Reef was almost more than I could resist. I thought seriously about South Africa where I thought I could make a difference in how man treats man, but friends there told me that harsh times were coming. And they were right. I also thought seriously about South America,” he said.
But in the end, “the wide-open ocean, warm weather, beautiful beaches and the thought of tooling a convertible in the sunshine along the ocean made Miami the only real choice for me.”
Mullane stepped off the plane in Miami for the first time in 1968, a time when social upheaval was at its height in the United States, with the country mired as it was in the throes of a very unpopular war in Vietnam.
He wasted little time in reaching out to that community, a practice that has marked his tenure in the Lower Keys for the past 38 years.
“I would head down to the areas where the hippies hung out to spread my word, to help where I could. It was a time of little strife on a local level, with folks hanging out in the park, smoking weed and taking an altruistic view of the world,” he said.
But as one of the most unpopular military conflicts in the history of this country dragged on, Mullane joined the ranks of those opposed to the senseless slaughter that Vietnam had become.
“I remember marching against the war shortly after I arrived in Miami, many times after that and then again in 1972 when President Richard Nixon was actually taking the first steps to stop the conflict,” said Mullane.
In 1977, with his days of hard-line activism behind him, Mullane accepted a post in Key West where he spent the best part of 10 years.
“It was there I learned that it takes a lot of maturing, a lot of earned knowledge about the world, to be willing to hang around in the Florida Keys, because the diversity of these islands is like nowhere else I can find,” he said.
After 10 years, the then-bishop made a decision to cut back in the Archdiocese, and Mullane’s Key West parish was one of those slated to fall to the budget axe.
“We had a good following, a good community spirit, a good school, and the move was very unpopular. The bishop and I had a few words about the situation,” he said. When the church was closed, Mullane left the area for his “extended walkabout” where he visited the Great Barrier Reef, traveled Europe, saw parts of the US he had never seen, even returned to Ireland briefly.
“But I missed the Keys. My love for the place overcame anything else,” he said. So he asked to return to his beloved island chain.
“The only parish opening was here. Big Pine Key. I hesitated briefly…only briefly.”
And he began the two-and-a-half decade process of moving St. Peter toward becoming the community icon it is today.
“I wasn’t sure if the people here would accept me, or like me. Coming to a new parish for me is like starting a new relationship. You have to learn the good in each other and build off that to create a solid partnership,” he said. “But I found that we respected each other. The community was so welcoming, and I was grateful for their acceptance.”
“Shortly after I arrived, George and Kathy Rockett wanted to get married in the church and she wanted to walk up the center aisle. The only problem was that we didn’t have a center aisle,” said Mullane. The pews went all the way across the chapel at that time “But I couldn’t let the dreams of a new bride be dashed.”
Mulane had been involved in a Miami church years earlier that was refurbishing at the time he came here, and one of the things happening was that a full set of shorter pews were available.
“I went and got them and put them in so Kathy could have her center aisle,” he said.
Not long after Mullane realized that his days standing on the outskirts of a war zone weren’t over.
“Big Pine was like a war zone when I arrived. The environmental groups that wanted to preserve the ecology of the island were fighting hard. But fighting just as hard were the groups that wanted to develop the island to full potential, the Concrete Coalition we called them. They bickered about everything and most things came to a standstill because of that,” he said.
That “war” resulted in a failed incorporation attempt a little over a decade ago, but the battles continued for some time.
He considers himself to be an avid conservationist, pushing recycling, pushing respect for all creatures, and having a fervent desire to “change the way we treat our planet.”
“I believe that we are doing more harm every day. What we should be doing is trying to ensure that we give our children and grandchildren the best possible world that we can. It’s the only one they have,” he said.
Mullane said he has watched as the island has changed over the years.
“In the days of short-term vacation rentals, we had a larger population, we had a more thriving business community, we had more private charter boats, we had people coming here to fish and dive and leave their mark on our community,” Mullane said.
But the county prohibited vacation rentals. “And then came Hurricane Georges and the hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, and then came a failing economy. And we haven’t been the same place since.”
It was Hurricane Georges in 1998 that solidified Mullane’s place in the history of Big Pine Key.
“It was a devastating storm for our friends. But it also brought this community closer together than it was before, and maybe since.”
St. Peter became the center of the storm recovery effort.
“We built a trailer park on the back of the property so that volunteers had a place to stay while they helped us recover. We ran a food pantry, a soup kitchen, anything we could to help out. There were volunteers from all faiths here. There were social service agencies and government agencies, all with one goal,” said Mullane.
And that goal was to bring a devastated community back to life.
A few years earlier, Mullane was instrumental in establishing a soccer field on church property after lots of bickering in the community about reducing open range for deer and safety for children accessing the church so close to what was then a deadly curve on the island.
“But after the furor died down, we put in the soccer field and the kids have been enjoying that facility for a long time now,” he said. The church leases the space to the county which a few years back paid to have a new surface put on the fields.
Following Hurricane Georges, Monroe County decided to solidify Mullane’s position in the history of Big Pine Key and named a street after him, now known as Father Tony Way.
“It was quite the humbling experience. I never started out to be any kind of a hero to anyone. I was just an ordinary guy who set out to help a community become a community. I am the epitome of the simple man who just decides to bloom where he is planted. This is where I was planted,” he said.
Some of his most treasured memories revolve around the “generations” of families that have passed through his doors at St. Peter.
“There are still couples on the island that I married, and then I baptized their children. And now, I’m marrying those children, and baptizing their children. We have a great history together,” said Mullane.
And a wistful look covered his face, his eyes looking into some far off recess of his memory to pull out again those cherished memories, dust them off and savor their remembered emotions.
But for all the treasured memories and challenges overcome in his 26-year tenure here, Mullane says there are things he feels have been left undone.
“I would have liked to make this church completely self-sustaining with solar power and cisterns, a model of green living to show everyone that if we pull together, we can give our new generations a planet worth fighting for.”
He said he also wishes he could have found a way to forestall the inevitable creep of technology into the family dynamic.
“When I arrived, families would work and play together. They would socialize together. Now, with the advent of cell phones and their presence in our every day lives, there is a lot less social interaction among family and circles of friend, and I think we’ve lost something along the way.”
Father Tony, which is all many locals know him by, says that he is completely unconcerned about what legacy he leaves behind as he moves into retirement.
“I’m taking the legacy with me. A legacy of community spirit, togetherness, and the will to ultimately do what’s right by our fellow man and our planet.”
St. Peter will be tossing a Toast and Roast for Mullane Sunday, April 6 beginning at 5 p.m. Tickets for the event are available at the church office and the entire community is invited to “celebrate” the legacy of the man known to all as Father Tony.