Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hands across religions

As a child in the 1960s, I thought all people were either Catholic or Jewish. There was little evidence of other faith traditions in my New York City environs. When I moved to Central Florida in early adulthood, the known world appeared to be entirely Southern Baptist.

Those perceptions of were based partly on superficial observation of the surroundings as I went about my life. Yet it was true that the people in these - and probably other - faith traditions carved geographical niches at the time.

Historic photo of Sisters of St. Joseph from the book "Miami 1909"
Sisters of St. Joseph at Cape Florida Lighthouse,
as shown in the book Miami 1909.
(Photo credit in book: Charles Mann / Miami Pioneers)
Our postmodern world has moved beyond denominational dominance in most areas of the United States. Interdenominational initiatives are a norm. What intrigues me is how my research on the social history of pioneer Catholicism in Florida continues to unearth similar modernist behavior. I keep finding exceptions in what I previously considered an era of isolationism among faith traditions.

As noted in other blog posts, those circles of friendships may be due to human needs on a sparsely populated frontier. But Miami wasn't exactly a backwoods settlement in 1909. Wikipedia cites the U.S. Census for the 1910 population count of 5,471. Yet 1909 Miami is when my latest example of religious intermingling occurs.

The 1984 book, Miami 1909by Thelma Peters, (Banyan Books), is built around the diary Miami resident Fannie Clemons wrote that year. Peters, herself a Miami pioneer and a former president of the Florida Historical Society, established a rich sense of place in which to situate the diary excerpts. One of the places Peters mentions is St. Catherine's Convent School. In the photo caption for the picture of the school on Page 35, she says the following:
Some non-Catholic children were sent here because the sisters had a reputation for gentility and thoroughness.
I like the sound of that, having been the product of similar teachers at St. Brigid's in Brooklyn.

The Miami convent school was just east of the Church of the Holy Name, built in 1898 on grounds of what is today Gesu Church. The original, small wooden church was built on land donated by Henry Flagler, who I believe was Presbyterian. Peters relays an anecdote in which Flagler, at the time, said that "two institutions that never failed to do what they started out to do were the Standard Oil Company and the Catholic Church."

Flagler was busy extending his Florida East Coast Railway to Key West in 1909. Two of his business associates founded St. Catherine's school, which in 1909 was staffed by six Sisters of St. Joseph from New York, Florida, Ohio, and Ireland. Pupils that season closed the school year with a program that included the following:
  • music by the school's music club, the St. Cecelia Club
  • piano solos
  • readings
  • awarding of medals of excellence
And, we're sure, some heartfelt prayers.

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