The history of St. Joseph School begins in 1913, around the same time the St. Joseph Church was founded. The first teachers were parents, later the Sisters of St. Francis came from Lakeland on Saturdays to teach children of parishioners.
St. Joseph's remained a mission church served by the Jesuits until December 1920. On December 1, 1923, Father Dennis O'Keefe, a diocesan priest, was assigned as the first resident pastor. He served the parish for the next three years.
The original church building was soon too small for the growing Catholic population, and plans for a new building were undertaken. Over the years, the church building and parish grounds were expanded. Under the pastoral direction of Fr. John V. O'Sullivan, 1952-1956, plans and construction of a parish school were underway. The original building for the school was commissioned in 1956. In its first year, the enrollment was between 57 and 110 students in grades 1-5. The first classes were held in the convent and parish hall while the construction of the four-classroom building was being completed. Three Sisters of St. Joseph from St. Augustine and one layperson conducted classes, with Sr. Mary Clement SSJ serving as the school's first principal. In January 1957, the students moved into the new school building. Father O'Sullivan died before this took place. Father Charles Anderson took over his leadership. On March 15, 1957, Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley dedicated the new school. He remarked, "This Catholic school marks a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in Central Florida. Take it to your hearts, cherish it, support it, it is yours."
At this time plans were being made to add the next four classrooms. With the second unit completed the school consisted of eight classrooms, lavatories, a lounge, and office. The second phase was completed in the summer of 1958. The tuition that year was $10.00 a month and $15.00 a month for families with more than one child enrolled. Most students were from Winter Haven, but some came from Bartow, Lake Wales, and Haines City.
With no cafeteria, the students brought their lunches and ate under the trees at the far end of the property in a picnic area. Eating out of doors had its challenges: weather, splinters, insects, and the occasional gulls from Lake Silver swooping down to steal someone's lunch items were just some of the students' challenges. Soon, a screened-in building was built where the Pre-K and Science Lab now stand. This building served as a cafeteria. Students were served lunches parents prepared, primarily hot dog lunches and hamburgers from McDonald's, which was just being introduced to the Winter Haven area.
In 1958, with the new school building completed, the parish undertook a capital campaign to build a new church building that would be able to hold a thousand worshippers.
In 1970, Father Vincent Eugene Smith was named pastor of St. Joseph's Church. Under his direction, the building of a parish center, library, learning center, and kindergarten were completed, as well as renovations to the rectory and convent.
The Sisters of St. Joseph had left the area before his arrival. Father Smith traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, to persuade the Sisters of Notre Dame of Chardon to help staff the school. Sister Mary Charlita, SND, was the first member of the community to serve as principal. She served from 1970 to 1976. In 1972, the school's population was 278 students. With Sister Mary Charlita, SND, were other members of the Sisters of Notre Dame that staffed the school. The faculty consisted of eight full-time and seven part-time teachers. Following Sister Mary Charlita, SND,a s principal was Sister Mary Eduard, SND, from 1976-1982. Sister M. Rita Lynn, SND, was appointed principal in September 1982, administering to 252 students. She stayed at St. Joseph's School until 1988.
During Sister M. Rita Lynn's SND, tenure as principal, the parish established an Education Endowment Fund. This fund had several goals:
- To provide scholarships and subsidies for students in the day school.
- To supplement expenses of the school and religious education fund.
- To provide for capital improvements to the school and religious education facilities.
- To supplement salaries of the faculty and religious education personnel.
This Fund was incorporated in May 1990. Incorporation gave the fund nonprofit status so that contributions to the fund would be tax deductible. A principal fundraiser for this endeavor has been the Golf and Tennis Classic. The fund is also supported by bequests and wills. To insure growth of the Endowment Fund, the principle is invested and only the income earned is used to assist educational programs.
Under the direction of Father Sean Heslin, 1984-1991, two classrooms and offices were added to the east end of the school. A meeting room was added as well. The current configuration of the Family Life Center and parish offices on Avenue M. were also a legacy from Father Heslin. The congregation had grown from the original twelve families to over 1600 permanent families and swelled to twice that size during the winter months. At that time, St. Joseph, with 4,000 members, was the largest congregation of any domination in Polk County.
On a lighter note, Father Heslin oversaw the construction of some unusual and challenging playground equipment for the school. With the aid of parents doing construction, the $25,000 price tag was reduced to $7,000. In February 1986, the gym equipment was blessed by Father William Neumann, the associate pastor of St. Joseph's and later "christened" with water balloons. During this time, other members of the Sisters of Notre DAme served as principal. As principal, Sister M. Rita Lynn, SND, was followed by Sister Mary Roseanna, SND, and Sister Mary Jean Rene, SND. The first lay principal, Ms. Angela Coombs, was appointed in 1997. Under her nine years of service, the enrollment grew to almost 500 students. In 2006, Mrs. Deborah Schwope became the second lay person to serve as principal.
In 1991, Father Anthony Bluett came to shepherd St. Joseph. He turned his energies toward the school, which had experienced a growth in student population. The revisions to the school building occurred in three phases, concluding in 2001. In 1998, a much-needed gymnasium was completed. Father Bluett was transferred in 2003, and Father William Neumann became Pastor. In 2005, Father Peter Puntal took the reins as the pastor of St. Joseph Parish.