Monday, March 30, 2015

Florida as mission territory

Head-and-shoulders image of Fr. Patrick Bresnahan from his 1937 memoir
This image of Fr. Patrick Bresnahan
is from his memoir of mission work,
Seeing Florida With a Priest
While researching an early 1880s Catholic colony near Sanford, I found a fascinating book by Father Patrick J. Bresnahan on the excellent Central Florida Memory website. The 1937 Seeing Florida With a Priest recounts his journeys through Florida mission territory in the first decade of the 1900s. What's doubly interesting is that Fr. Bresnahan afterward became the first resident priest at All Souls Catholic Church in Sanford. That church's roots are in the early colony, whose history I'm exploring. Nice circle.

The dichotomy between ecumenism and religious prejudice in frontier Florida continues to intrigue me, and is found aplenty in the 97-page book. The All Souls history webpage notes how "Protestants and Jews had been benefactors" of the first church building, erected in 1887. Meanwhile, Fr. Bresnahan writes of his first mission in Madison, Fla., in 1904, that "bigotry and prejudice were then rampant in that pretty town" (page 14).  One man who secretly attended mission services was regularly accused of being Catholic by his neighbors, because he tried to dispel misconceptions.

But, by the time a church building was under construction in Madison in 1907, "all the Catholics contributed generously, and some non-Catholics" (page 15). All was not completely well. On the same page, Fr. Bresnahan tells how the sheriff threatened to arrest the Catholic church ladies for selling tickets for a giveaway of a patchwork quilt. The raffle was part of a fundraising bazaar and supper. The town marshal came to the rescue, the publicity generated attention, and the gala raised $400. My go-to inflation calculator website doesn't go back to 1907, but were that $400 raised in 1913, it would be the equivalent of $9,483 in today's dollars.

Once the church was built, non-Catholics converged to help form a robust choir for a two-week mission. "I left Madison with a feeling that I had done something to remove prejudice" (page 16), writes Fr. Bresnahan humbly. Soon after, he was in Tallahassee, where he found little bigotry despite the occasional "vomitings  of 'cheap' politicians" (page 18).

The above is just a sampling of what can be found in this valuable memoir, which was published by Economy Print Shop in Zephyrhills. I've not yet finished reading the book, but can't end this blog post without mentioning Fr. Bresnahan's encounters with Florida Crackers in Sopchoppy, "which is real country and 'cracker' village" (page 23). His experience bears quoting, because it corrects cultural history that, at times, still depicts pioneer Florida Crackers as backwoods bigots.

"The great interest exhibited during the mission was remarkable; it was conducted in the public school building. The natives, all 'crackers', vied with one another, unlike any other place, in giving me hospitality; and, they went so far as to get up parties for my entertainment, even though many had never seen a priest before. Moreover, they all seemed glad to find out what they had heard concerning priests hitherto were 'lies'." (page 23)

Ignorant backwoods folk? Hardly. The Crackers exhibited a genuine human dignity that contrasts starkly to the antics of some of the era's movers and shakers. There's a lesson in that.

No comments:

Post a Comment