Thanks to its worldwide exposure as the host city for Super Bowl XXXV on Jan. 28, Tampa may become known only as an NFL hotspot.

But the area called Tampa Bay — which includes the triad of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa — has more to offer the Catholic visitor than a visit to Raymond James Stadium, home of the Buccaneers.

The city claims the Church's protomartyr in Florida and one of the first Catholics to die for the faith in the United States. The Dominican friar Luis de Cancer was clubbed to death in 1549 by natives from the Timucuan and Caloosa Nations who accosted his band of religious as they came ashore on Tampa Bay. A dramatic stained-glass window in Espiritu Santo Church in the area's Safety Harbor is a visual reminder of Fray Luis' sacrifice. It wasn't until 1565, when Spain established St. Augustine colony on Florida's Atlantic shore, that the Church established a foothold in the state. It would take 311 years after Fray Luis' death for a Catholic church to be built in Tampa Bay.

Tampa's Catholic history owes a debt to the Jesuits who arrived in Tampa in 1888 to take over the tiny St. Louis Church, which had been founded in 1860 and named in honor of Fray Luis. Yellow fever had killed three of the four priests in the area and the bishop of the state's only diocese turned to the Jesuits' New Orleans province for help. With new vigor, the Jesuits arrived and set out to build a new church to replace St. Louis. They broke ground in Tampa's downtown in 1898 for what would be christened Sacred Heart Church.

Sacred Heart was finished in 1904 and dedicated in 1905. As Tampa Bay's oldest church, it has served as the mother church for 50 parishes in the area, which is now under the leadership of the Diocese of St. Petersburg and is the home of 77 parishes serving more than 365,000 Catholics.

Shape of a Cross

Tampa's skyline has changed tremendously since 1905, but visitors to Sacred Heart will see a church that looks much the same now as it did when it was dedicated.

Other than side altars added later in its history, and a new marble altar added in the 1960s, Sacred Heart has remained a 19th-century architectural jewel. What had originally been a neighborhood of small homes is now the city's growing downtown; what was once an imposing Romanesque church towering over a residential neighborhood is now dwarfed by skyscrapers built in the 96 years since.

The Jesuits planned Sacred Heart in the shape of a cross and imported marble for its white exterior, which is offset by granite. A petal-shaped, stained-glass window and three solid-oak entryways give the church's entrance a grand European cathedral character à la Notre Dame de Chartres. Now surrounded by parking lots and towers, Sacred Heart sits squarely in a business center that's alive during business hours, but lonely on evenings and weekends.

A visitor to Tampa's downtown can find a quiet refuge at Sacred Heart. A pilgrim can appreciate the old-style beauty of the church's interior, which rises more than 70 feet from its porcelain tile floor to its dome.

The main altar and its railing have the gleaming white-marble grandeur of the churches many of us remember from our parochial childhoods. The Jesuits' motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (For the Greater Glory of God) frames the sanctuary. Even a casual visitor walking into Sacred Heart couldn't help but peg this as an unmistakably Catholic church.

Sacred Heart's 17 stained-glass windows are the church's greatest artistic treasure. Made in Munich specifically for the Jesuits' home church in Florida, the richly colored panels depicting scenes of Jesus' life are still vibrant in their 10th decade. Jesus blesses children and saves Peter from drowning in Tiffanyesque stained glass that, thanks to Florida's brilliant sunshine, bathes empty pews in rainbow hues on a Sunday afternoon.

Bas-relief Stations of the Cross complement the stained glass windows along the sides of the church. The side pews that make up the crossbar of Sacred Heart's cross shape are prime spots to take in the grandeur of the church. The stained-glass windows are offset by the marble stations along the side aisles. A magnificent 1927 Mighty Moeller pipe organ adds to the character of the church. The organ was restored in 1991 and is used for performances as well as liturgies.

Tampa's suburban growth had an effect on Sacred Heart's parish rolls; as more families have moved out of central Tampa, they've shifted their attendance to newer churches.

The church remains a vital parish with several ministries, including Hearts for Healing, an ecumenical group that focuses on praying for healing wounds caused by disunion and racism. Half of the group's members are Catholic and the other half are from other Christian denominations. The Friends of Sacred Heart organization was formed in 1993 as a way to raise funds through enrollments and memorials to continue the church's restoration and maintenance. (In the 1970s, termite damage was repaired at a cost greater than the church's original construction cost in 1904.)

Sacred Heart continues to serve Catholics in Tampa's business center with a daily lunchtime Mass and the church continues to be popular with history buffs and engaged couples looking to marry in its stately interior.

The Super Bowl notwithstanding, the Tampa Bay area is more than an NFL city — it's also one of the cradles of Catholicism in Florida and the home of one of its most beautiful churches.

Maggie D. Hall is based in Dunedin, Florida.