Friday, June 20, 2014

Pedaling the faith

A big thanks to archivist Sister Catherine Bitzer and the Archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine, for material she shared about Catholic life on the frontier. The information in Brief History of the Churches of the Diocese of St. Augustine Florida stretches the boundaries of my 19th century focus by up to eight years, but is too interesting to overlook.

St. Peter, 1908. Archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine
At the turn of the 20th century, a chunk of land 100 miles by 40 miles comprised Florida East Coast mission field. The Rev. Michael J. Curley covered the area by bicycle and rail. Fr. Curley was the first resident pastor of St. Peter's in DeLand, which was without a resident pastor from 1883 to the early 1900s. (Yes, St. Peter is my parish and I know my first two Pioneer Catholic posts are related to it. I'll expand soon!)

It's hard to think about Florida - fourth most populous U.S. state - as once being mission territory. But the archival literature references Fr. Curley as a missionary priest who pedaled and pushed his bicycle for hours from DeLand to New Smyrna, where he got on the train. That's a good 20 to 25 miles. He then pedaled some more, between stations along the coast.

Clergy were spread thin in frontier Florida, and persevered amid challenges. There wasn't a resident priest from Daytona south to Palm Beach. The Rev. Michael F. Foley of Baltimore spent a good portion of 1885 to 1893 ministering to DeLand and surrounding areas, despite being in "broken-down health." After he left, the Rev. John O'Brien of Palatka came to DeLand once a month to offer Mass. Fr. Curley arrived in 1904.  A diocesan missionary priest named the Rev. P.J. Bresnahan helped spread the Gospel in "DeLand's vast mission field," as the entire Central East area was called, but I'm not sure how long he stayed after his 1906 efforts. Fr. Curley, described as zealous, devoted the second Sunday of each month to the missions.

Concurrent with mission work, a structured worship schedule took form in the growing DeLand parish. Here's a look at the program in about 1906:
  • Sundays, November to May:  High Mass with sermon in morning; Rosary, sermon, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in the evening
  • Sundays, June to October: Low Mass with sermon, followed by Benediction, in morning
  • Way of the Cross on Fridays in Lent
  • First Friday "faithfully observed"
  • Sunday School "never omitted"
By this time, 20+ years had passed since Catholics and non-Catholics in DeLand worked together to build and furnish St Peter's Church. They did it again,  in 1906-1908, to erect a rectory and enlarge the church.  Brief History states with pleasure that "... many non-Catholics contributed very generously." The South hasn't always been kind to Catholicism. The good feeling of the ecumenism lingers across the decades.

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