St. Martha Catholic Church began as one of a number of mission outposts served by Jesuit priests from Tampa, who had initially celebrated Mass in the homes of church members.
In May 1911, the Sarasota Times announced that Martha A. Burns, mother of developer Owen Burns, had donated a lot on the corner of Adelia Street and what is now Fruitville Road for the erection of a Catholic Church that would seat 150 people.
In spite of a complaint that the site was “too far out” of town, Hugh Browning, a Scottish colonist who came here in 1885, became the contractor for the project.
In December, the Times reported that construction had begun and the framing was up. The church was named after Martha Burns’ patron saint, but it was not until the 1920s that local publications added “St. Martha” to “Catholic Church.”
Changes came in the 1920s. Pews replaced the original benches. A choir was added to the musical support provided by the first pump organ. By the middle of the decade, services were held weekly: at 8:00 a.m. on two Sundays and 10:00 a.m. on the other two Sundays of the month. The early and late services alternated with those at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Bradenton, which was served by the same priest.
Reflecting the population growth that accompanied the Florida Land Boom, St. Martha experienced a space shortage. Members began talking about enlarging their building and having their mission status changed to that of a parish with a resident priest, but neither goal was reached quickly.
In 1927, the bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine selected Charles L. Elslander to be the first spiritual leader for Catholics in Bradenton and Sarasota. Having served other Florida churches since his ordination to the priesthood in 1922, and after serving St. Joseph until another priest could take on that half of the assignment, Elslander spent 40 years in Sarasota.
Civic and church leaders in Sarasota joined members of the St. Martha’s parish to welcome him with a reception at the Whitfield Estates Country Club on October 1, 1927.
When the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus moved its winter quarters to Sarasota, many of the circus families became part of St. Martha parish. The circus and St. Martha Church developed a close association. For several years in the late 1930s, circus performers staged the premiere of their new show on the church grounds and donated all the receipts for a new sanctuary. By that time, Father Elslander had begun to bless the circus each spring as the train left Sarasota for the new season’s tour.
A variety of people and fundraising events contributed to the construction of the new St. Martha Church on Orange Avenue and Fruitville Road in 1940. The circus, Boston Red Sox players, church members and organizations, businesses and friends of the church contributed funds. Skilled craftspeople contributed their labor.
Having broken ground in September 1940, St. Martha parishioners first worshiped in the Spanish mission style sanctuary on Easter Sunday in 1941. In less than five years, the building was completely paid for, and St. Martha launched a campaign for the next major step in the church’s history, the construction of an elementary school.