Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Resisting a secular land grab

Cover of The Florida Catholic Heritage Trail online document
I'm stepping back a few decades earlier than usual in this post. That's so I can share information about how Florida property was stolen from the Catholic church. 

We hear a lot about how land was taken from other groups during the formative years of our country. I'm going to guess you've never heard about this particular land grab. 

The time period in focus in this post is the early 1820s. That's when Florida was removed from Spanish control and put under the umbrella of the United States. Florida wasn't yet a state. It became a U.S. territory in 1821. 

Rather than listen to me, read the direct explanation from The Florida Catholic Heritage Trail. The detailed Trail document from the Florida Catholic Conference was published in 2005. It was edited by now-deceased author and scholar Michael Gannon. Here's what the document says about the seizure:

"With the change of flags in East Florida in 1821, the parish of St. Augustine suffered substantial loss. Claiming that they were the property of Spain, not of the church, U.S. federal officials seized the church building, burial ground, episcopal residence (statehouse in British times), the former Franciscan convent, and Nombre de Dios."

Nice, huh? I'm sure church authorities differed about that perception of ownership. The U.S. government didn't care. Its agents saw a chance to grab prime real estate and thwart a "foreign" religion. 

The bishop in Charleston at the time, Bishop John England, managed to wrestle the church and cemetery out of U.S. hands. Or, as the Trail document says, he "secured their return" to the church in 1823. This wasn't just any old church building. It was the church we know today as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, the first and oldest Catholic parish in the United States.

The bishop had to be content with the return of those two properties. The episcopal residence building and land were given to Protestants. The Episcopal Church built Trinity Church on the site in 1831.

The St. Francis Barracks - the convent where friars once prayed - was no longer a sacred space even in 1821. So I concede the site appeared rather secular to incoming U.S. authorities.

The Franciscan friars had left during the 20-year British occupation of Florida in the late 1700s. The British confiscated and converted the barracks to military quarters. Spain continued the usage. The U.S. followed suit. The property went on to house Confederate and then Union troops. By then, Florida was a state and embroiled in the Civil War. The renovated property may be familiar to you today as headquarters of the Florida National Guard

As for the important and historic Mission Nombre de Dios, at least some of the site found its way back into the fold of the church. But I don't know how big the original site was, how much was returned, or when. All I know is that the beautiful waterfront mission is definitely part of the Diocese of St. Augustine.

For Catholics, the mission site is sacred ground. The first Catholic Mass in the United States was celebrated there. The first Marian shrine in the United States was founded there. In 2019, the U.S. Catholic bishops elevated The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche (at the mission site) to the status of a national shrine.

The secular authorities tried, but they couldn't wipe out the faith's presence or influence. Millions visit the Cathedral and Mission Nombre de Dios every year. The faithful go to pray, others visit for historic or cultural reasons. God's presence is palpable to me at both places. May others also feel his peace. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Catholic fundraisers part of frontier life

Photo showing aerial view of Palatka in 1800s
Palatka in earlier days. Photo credit:
Palatka Railroad Preservation Society
Church and parochial school fundraisers are and were a staple of Catholic life. In Florida, that was as true a century ago as it is today.

On superficial levels, the fundraisers on the Florida frontier were different. For example, in 1911 a benefit performance for the Sisters of St. Joseph in Palatka featured musical performances. But, oh, how the music has changed. 

The event was written up in The Palatka News on June 30, 1911, and given the headline "Benefit A Big Success." The benefit netted $44.25 in 1911 dollars. That's almost $1,200 today. 

That's not too shabby, when you consider certain facts. Tickets cost only 10 cents, about $2.75 today. The event took place in a Florida summer in the days before air conditioning. Can you say sweltering? And the city's population at that time was only about 3,800 people. Finally, anti-Catholicism was rearing its head in Florida in 1911.

The news reporter was impressed by the event's proceeds, the size of the crowd, and the artists who performed. Most were "well known local artists." They treated the audience to violin solos, piano music, and vocal and spoken performances. The setting was nice, too - a local theater named the Orpheum.

The songs named were mysteries to me: "Sergeant Kitty," "Listening to the Vesper Bells," "Pheenie," "You Give Me Your Love." The audience loved the Vesper Bells song so much they gave singer Mrs. Louis Kalkfield an encore. I wish I knew her first name. Married women in those days were identified in public by their husband's names. 

The fundraiser also featured a "special picture of incidents in the life of Christ." No other explanation is given. It made me wonder if the picture depicted the Stations of the Cross.  A Catholic news reporter would have said as much, but a non-Catholic reporter might not have known that.

All in all, the event seems to have been a high point in town on a quiet summer day in 1911. 

The Sisters of St. Joseph operated an academy in Palatka for decades. The school was still popular enough in 1922 that The Palatka News found it necessary to squash rumors that the academy was closing. The May 24, 1922 edition placed a prominent notice on Page 2, just above an etching and tidbit about the inventor of the Eskimo Pie.

The Sisters, though, got the largest headline on the page: "St. Joseph's Will Not Close School." The notice said the Sisters of St. Joseph's Academy wished to correct a rumor that the school wouldn't open for the fall semester. There was no foundation to the rumor and the Sisters were at a loss to determine how it got started.

My cynical side suspects the rumor started in the anti-Catholicism that had become prevalent in Florida by the early 1920s. But, as with the original rumor, I have no foundation for my musings. Just general knowledge of the political and religious climates of that time in Florida.

The Sisters of St. Joseph had a deep footprint in Palatka by 1922. They had opened their school in the riverfront city in 1876. I learned that from a 2008 dissertation by Barbara E. Mattick that's accessible online via the Florida State University Digital Library. The doctoral disseration covers the ministries of the Catholic Sisters of St. Augustine over the course of 61 years. I look forward to reading more of its 226 pages.

St. Joseph's Academy lasted a few years beyond the rumor days. A 2001 article in The Orlando Sentinel said the academy was replaced by a parish school named St. James in 1929.

Many Catholic schools struggle to stay open today. They and our Catholic churches need our support more than ever. May the next fundraiser you attend, in person or online, be filled with beautiful music and open hearts. 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

People and places, Florida north and south

Finding information about frontier Florida's black residents isn't always easy when digging for voices from the past. Many were too busy scraping a living and raising families to find time to record memoirs or write in diaries. Some couldn't read or write. They - as well as distinguihed blacks and those of means - faced years of discrimination from societies and organizations established to preserve local histories. 

So, I enjoyed watching the videos - shared here - that offer a glimpse from opposite ends of the state. The first gives a brief overview of sites associated with black history in Miami. They include the first house owned by a black person in Miami.

The other video is the introduction to Florida's Black History Channel, a YouTube channel about the history of the Glenwood neighborhood in Panama City in the Florida Panhandle. While the Miami video depicts places, the Panama City ones focus on people who share memories of days gone by. 

One thing became clear soon after I started watching the Panama City videos. It's a refrain that held true in my own youth. Neighborhoods were tight-knit and everyone kept an eye on all the local youth. Adults stepped in where and when needed, as needed. That was as true in my Brooklyn city youth as it was in the sandy backroads of country Florida. We've lost that, all of us. And that's a sad realization.

City of Miami - Black History video. Click on the photo to watch the video or use this link: https://youtu.be/T5LNGKbcEC4

Screengrab from City of Miami Black History video

Introduction video on the Black History Channel: Click on the photo to watch the video or use this link: https://youtu.be/k8kXOKP-6zg

Screengrab from Black History Channel's introduction video

Sunday, December 27, 2020

1920 little better than 2020

Screengrab of front page of Lakeland  Evening Telegram newspaper of  Dec. 31, 1920
Front page of the Dec. 31, 1920 edition. Source:
I thought it'd be fun to check contemporary concerns at the end of 1920. It'd be a way to compare 1920 current events with our mess of 2020. 

The best way to find those earlier details is in vintage newspapers. They were the main communication tools in that era. Wikipedia tells me 1920 was the year radio only started becoming popular.

So much for my great idea. A look at the Lakeland Evening Telegram of Dec. 31, 1920, quickly depressed me. Maybe 1920 was little better than 2020. 

The front page reported dismal national and global news. A polio epidemic was raging in Chicago. Some 60,000 Russian refugees from Crimea were headed for new lives in Mexico. The White Sox baseball players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series were to be extradited on charges of consipracy.

On a Florida level, the Florida legislative delegation was being dragged in front of a Congressional committee in Washington to answer charges of voter discrimination.

The Floridians strongly denied charges of discrimination against what the newspaper termed "Negro voters." The charges were brought by the NAACP, which said mobs of lawless whites in many Florida communities interfered in elections. Specifically mentioned was rioting that took place in Ocoee on Election Day, where a white mob burned buildings and killed between 30 and 35 blacks. 

One of the saddest headlines on the front page was about lynchings, described in print as "illegal executions." The news was that lynchings were less numerous nationally in 1920, according to data compiled by The Tuskegee Institute.

"Only" - to me this is a horrific "only" number - 61 lynchings took place in 1920, compared with 83 in 1919. Seven occurred in Florida. Of the national number, eight victims were white men and one was a black woman. You do the math. That means 52 black men and one black woman were lynched in the United States in 1920. And those were the ones that were known.

There were a couple of bright spots in the news. Authorities prevented an additional 56 lynchings from taking place in 1920. Armed forces were used to repel the mobs in 14 of those cases. To me, that says at least some people in the country were attempting to combat the problem.

And, considering that anti-Catholicism pervaded Florida in that era, I was surprised to see a front-page article about Catholic celebrations. The news mentioned by name the many priests, bishops, and cardinals celebrating jubilee years throughout the country in 1921. 

All in all, the final day of 1920 as described by the Lakeland, Florida, media wasn't any too cheery from my perspective. Perhaps the newspaper's  editorial writer said it best on page 2: "The year 1920 has been a year of unsolved problems." Same can be said for 2020. Here's to a better year ahead.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Little House on the Florida frontier, revisited

partial cover of booklet about Laura Ingalls Wilder's brief stay in Florida
This 30-page booklet sheds light on the
Wilder family's brief stay in frontier Florida
A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about how Laura Ingalls Wilder lived on the Florida frontier for about a year in the early 1890s. 

I'd been surprised to learn that she, Almanzo, and their daughter, Rose, had settled briefly in the backwoods of rural Florida. And unsurprised to learn they'd left rather quickly.

Yankees and Old South residents didn't mix well in that time and place. The Wilders' short residency in Westville, FL, wasn't a happy one.

I wanted to learn more than I could glean from the Internet. Thanks to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association, I have. 

The association has long overseen production and distribution of a 30-page booklet about the Westville years. First published in 1979, Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Westville Florida Years is in its 7th printing. I purchased it via the association's online store (along with a couple of quilt patterns Laura was known to have followed).

An even bigger thanks goes to author Alene M. Warnock and her husband, James M. Warnock. Her curiosity and perserverence uncovered gems of information about descendents and the Ingalls-Wilder legacy in Florida. His photographs provide additional context and his essay about Westville "today"  - meaning the late 1970s - depicts a time as distant to us in 2020 as the 1890s are. 

Westville in the 1970s was smaller than it had been in the 1890s. I've never been to the community, but I expect it's smaller now than even in the 1970s. It hugs the Florida-Alabama border in the middle of nowhere. I did visit the region, though, a number of years ago. The countryside is beautiful.

I don't know if either of the Warnocks is still alive. If they are, I hope they know of my and many Wilder fans' appreciation of their efforts. But I suspect they have passed. I found a legacy.com obituary for an Alene M. Warnock who died in 2011 and whose husband, James, had predeceased her. 

I won't provide a lot of details about what's in their booklet. It only costs $3.50 and your purchase would help support a nonprofit. In fact, the little book would make a great stocking stuffer for your favorite Wilder fan or for yourself! 

Why should you read it? Because you'll find - among other treats -  that the Warnocks met and interviewed Laura's - niece? cousin once-removed? The woman, named Emma, was elderly in the 1970s and an important link to the past and to Laura's life story.

I'm not exactly sure how to term the relationship between Laura and "Miss Emma." The woman was the daughter of Laura's cousin Peter Ingalls, the person on whose homestead the Wilders probably settled for their year in Florida. The Warnocks found no evidence that Laura and Almanzo filed a homestead claim of their own. That the Warnocks found such a close relative of Laura's in the 1970s is a wonderful thing. 

The Warnocks did a lot of diligent searching and interviewing and traveling on their own time and dime. They shed needed light on the Wilder family's Westville detour. For that, this Wilder fan salutes them. As I hope many other Wilder fans have done and will do.

Here's a link to the 2017 post I wrote about the family's sojourn in Florida. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Cassadaga, Spiritualism, and Purgatory

1920s image of Cassadaga
This early image of Cassadaga was taken 
 before the pictured hotel burned down in 1926.
(Credit: West Volusia Historical Society)
This is a perfect time to write about the early days of the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. The trio of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day - Oct. 31, Nov. 1, and Nov. 2 - brings the world beyond closer. 

Halloween reminds us of hauntings and otherworldly beings. All Saints and All Souls days are when Catholics formally remember, honor, and pray for those who've left this world. Many non-Catholics are familiar with those two days because they know about Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead, Nov. 1-2) observances. 

As a Catholic, I believe in an afterlife. Spiritualists do, too, but their faith's tenets include belief in the ability to communicate with the dead. 

This belief has opened the faith to ridicule and charlatans. But it also has attracted true believers and casual interactors who find comfort in contacts channeled by mediums. The Cassadaga website defines a medium as a person "who is capable of receiving communication from people who were once living on the earth and have passed into the spirit world."

The now-famous Spiritualist camp in Cassadaga has its roots in both otherwordly guidance and regular old American ingenuity. First, the otherwordly. A Wisconsin-based medium named George Colby is said to have been led by a spirit guide to a spot in the wilderness of frontier Florida in the early 1870s.

There was nothing there - not even adjacent Lake Helen had been founded yet. The entire county in 1870 was home to only about 3,000 people. (It's 500,000 today.) We're talking total isolation. But Colby filed a homestead claim for 75 acres in 1880 and proved up on his land. 

Colby was prescient about his choice. He had discerned an aura hovering over the land. In 1895, he donated or sold (sources disagree) 34 of his acres to the nonprofit Southern Cassadaga Camp Spiritualist Association. That's the legal name of the spiritualist camp.

The transaction was the birth of what would become "a mecca for Spiritualists," writes John J. Guthrie Jr. in Cassadaga: The South's Oldest Spiritualist Community (University Press of Florida, 2000). 

The ingenuity part is explained in Guthrie's essay. In the early 1890s, Spiritualists from upstate New York organized winter camp meetings in the Florida community of DeLeon Springs. These proved popular. And - somewhat surprisingly to me - the locals embraced the Spiritualists. 

Locals flocked to events and lectures presented by speakers who included Colby. Guthrie writes that one Sunday, 300 DeLand residents hopped an excursion train to travel the 8 miles to DeLeon Springs and attend a meeting.

DeLeon Springs leaders offered economic incentives to entice the Spiritualist association to establish a permanent Southern branch. Spiritualist leaders didn't choose their permanent winter site rashly. They checked out many Florida locations including Daytona Beach, New Smyrna, Tampa, and St. Petersburg. An offer of 25 acres and municipal bonds helped them select DeLeon Springs. Until. 

For some reason, Colby - an active member of the Spiritualist community - waited until association board members had considered all other location options. Then he invited them to visit his land, about 15 miles south of DeLeon Springs. 

Two important Spiritualist women leaders, Emma J. Huff and Marion Skidmore, toured his property. Guthrie writes that both believed the site "radiated spiritual harmony." 

Colby's location had all the right ingredients for the association, which in 1895 either bought or accepted as a donation 34 acres of his land. The settlement grew from that seed, as its online history explains. Today, the 57-acre camp is a major tourist destination and also a quiet year-round community where believers live and practice their faith.

I've been to Cassadaga more than a few times. Early during my newspaper reporting years, I went there to write articles about the camp, the religion, and its enduring appeal to tourists. I also covered a dispute among community members over the settlement's water system. From reading Cassadaga, I've learned that internal warfare is nothing new to the Spiritualists. Infighting is as alive and well in that religion as in every other one.

Another time, I went on a historic walking tour of the settlement, which is a rural hamlet with a quaint atmosphere. The walking tour was at dusk and the quiet of evening was settling on the houses and community buildings. (Residents own their houses but the association owns all the land.) 

A sense of calm serenity surrounded the group. The tour guide pointed out architectural details and he shared historical details. He said members of the spirit world are always near at hand in the community.

We climbed a slight incline and stopped in front of one of the historic houses. A wave of sadness came over me. I had a distinct sense that someone - something? - was associated with this particular house. Perhaps a person who once lived there? Or who had been contacted by a medium who lived there? I wondered if it was more than one person, or spirit. I felt sad for whatever or whomever was causing me to feel sorrow.

I didn't dwell on the incident afterward. I shelved it and went on with my life. Then, recently, I read the short novel Tortured Soul, by Theresa Linden. It's about souls in Purgatory, in particular one lost soul and his interaction with the living. I immediately thought of my encounter with sadness at the house on the Cassadaga walking tour. 

Without getting into theology, Catholics believe Purgatory is a purification of souls who need to atone for earthly sins before reaching Heaven. I imagine it's like an abyss of sadness because of the absence of God. Prayer is how those of us on earth help souls in Purgatory move closer to the eternal light. 

You don't hear much about Purgatory today. It was an important part of my religious education in my youth. Over the years, I let it slide to the corners of my faith. But now I make it a regular habit to keep the souls in Purgatory in my prayers.

Was that sadness I noted in Cassadaga a brief link with a soul or souls in need? I'll never know. But I pray that their sadness soon turns to joy. 

Screengrab from Google Streetview of Cassadaga main entrance
This Google StreetView image shows how much
Cassadaga retains a historical quaintness.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Bone garden represented dignity

This photo of Aggie Jones in her bone yard is
from about 1908. (Credit: Florida Memory)

If I were one of those celebrity or political billionaires who toss around their money, I'd buy people DNA tests so they could trace their ancestry.

DNA results allow testers to understand some of their own behaviors and preferences and to feel pride in being part of a tribe. At least that's how DNA results make me feel.

DNA tests didn't exist at the turn of the 20th century, when a woman named Aggie Jones presided over one of the most popular locations in Lake City in north Florida. There, she was known as Aunt Aggie. Elderly African-Americans were often called aunt and uncle in the Old South. Not sure why. 

Aggie was a former slave who was part Seminole and part African-American. She created a bone-garden landscape that made her famous. She collected and arranged animal bones in artistic, structured patterns that caused people to marvel. Shrubs, vines, and flowers grew in an among the bones. Aggie also grew vegetables and sold the produce. She gave away bouquets in hopes of receiving tips from visitors.

Tourists and locals apparently wandered the garden at will, relaxed in chairs Aggie had set up, and took photos of one another as one does at tourist attractions. Local youth borrowed or rented bones to use on Halloween. Aggie's bone yard was a topic of talk near and far. 

Aggie was a fortune-teller and she also had a museum of sorts within her house. I had the impression people dropped by as they saw fit, not even trying to set up an appointment. It was like Aggie's house and garden existed for others to enjoy at will. She was always a gracious hostess. But did she have a choice?

I learned about Aggie and her garden in May Vinzant Perkins' 15-page book, Aunt Aggie's Bone Yard: A Historic Old Garden in Lake City, Florida. Perkins was a poet and gardener in Lake City. She appears to have written her book in 1952 but the material refers to the early 1900s. Aggie was in her 90s when she died in 1918. 

You can read the entire book online via the link attached to the title. More information is available in a 2003 Orlando Sentinel newspaper interview with one of Aggie's descendants. The article is also available online: "Search for Family Roots Leads to Special Garden."

What made me start this post with a DNA comment was an article I read recently in a history/archaeology magazine that I have now misplaced, to my great annoyance. The article discussed archaeological finds in an ancient settlement in - to the best of my recollection - Nubia, which is the modern-day Sudan region. 

Unearthed among other findings were animal bones aggregated in a way that reminded me of Aggie's collection of bones. They seemed to have been arranged in what might have been a structured pattern, as Aggie's were.

I wondered if Aggie were descended from the Nubians. And if so, if she retained a cultural consciousness about her heritage. I wondered if the voices of her ancestors stayed with her in some way. Or if homeland traditions were handed down orally, from elder to child. And I wondered if she also learned traditions associated with her Seminole heritage.

I have no answers, just a vivid imagination. But I'd like to think the answers are yes. Such self-knowledge would have given Aggie agency, dignity, and identity. Those strengths were normally hard to come by for a former slave at that time and place.

Today, a DNA test could trace the threads between Aggie and her heritage. She didn't have that option. But even long before such validation was possible, Aggie was strong enough to carve out a distinct identity. And it was very much at variance with the cultural norms that surrounded her. She and her story deserve to be remembered.

POSTSCRIPT: On a side note, I'd like to share this photo of a beautiful quilt of Aggie, created by artist Teddy Pruitt. Click on the photo to be taken to the artist's website, which shows a larger image.