Friday, April 29, 2016

Florida sojourner: Constance Fenimore Woolson

Black and white 19th century photo of Constance Fenimore Woolson
Constance Fenimore Woolson
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Part 1 of 2

I just read the excellent new biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, an under-appreciated 19th century writer. Anne Boyd Rioux's Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of A Lady Novelist (Norton, 2016) covers an entire life, but it was Woolson's Southern sojourns that most interested me. She wintered in St. Augustine for several years in the 1870s, and set some of her short stories and at least one of her novels, the mid-1880s East Angels, in Florida.

It's probably safe to say that literate Florida pioneer settlers read Woolson's works or were aware of her. She was a lauded and popular writer of both fiction and nonfiction - travel articles, stories, and novels. The same can't be said today. She's hardly known anymore, although her reputation is on the upswing again.

I became aware of Woolson via English professor Dr. John Pearson, now AVP of Academic Affairs, at Stetson University. He's part of a group of scholars who have published on Woolson and have worked to rebuild her literary reputation. Thanks to his introduction, I started to explore her literature. I began with her short-story collection Rodman the Keeper because of its Southern focus.

Immediately, I was taken with Woolson's keen perceptions of local mores, her descriptions of Florida, and her respectful handling of colorful locals whom lesser writers might have disparaged. The stories are so rich in sense of place, time, and people that they function as windows to a distinct era long past. The stories also are enjoyable - even to the modern reader -  and often poignant.

Next on my Woolson reading list is East Angels, which one Goodreads reviewer says is a "fascinating picture of post-Bellum Florida, the role of women in 19th century life, and of women in the period." First, though, I plan to focus on Part 2 of this blog post: a look at some of the ways Woolson spoke of 19th century Florida and Floridians in her letters. Stay tuned. In the meantime, read some of her literature for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

Fun fact: Woolson was grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A church like no other?

St. John Catholic Church in the 1910s
St. John the Baptist Catholic Church was
 designed by architect George E. Ledvina
 in the early 1900s.
Photo credit: Florida Memory

This photo of a frontier Florida church stopped me cold in my web browsings. Look at the ornate design depicted in this 1910s image of St. John's Catholic Church in Dunnellon! Not something you see every day in pioneer Florida.

I'm not versed in architectural nomenclature or style trends. But even my untrained eye can guess that the Eastern Orthodox-style dome and Gothic-influenced windows set the structure apart from many counterparts. 

My rudimentary research into the pioneer Catholic presence in Florida usually uncovers plain, rectangular, box-like church buildings. The fledgling communities rarely had the the funds to get fancy. If you look closely, the Dunnellon church actually is a basic box.  A rectangle - and then some.

The story of the St. John's faith community that worshipped in the distinctive church is a tale of challenge and perseverance. A parish history on the current St. John the Baptist Church's website terms the struggle "a dramatic story of survival and growth despite great adversity." I'll say.

The following is the partial story, as told in the parish history:

Born during Dunnellon's phosphate industry boom, the parish initially served the many Catholics who worked in the industry. The parish history says construction of the church - or, the "ornate structure" - was under the supervision of an architect named George E. Ledvina. 

Benedictine Fr. Charles Mohr, OSB, dedicated the church in January 1914. Fr. Mohr was the first abbot of St. Leo Abbey, the Benedictine community that sponsored the new church.

Parish life faded when the phosphate industry died after World War I and many Catholics moved away. The building was leased to Marion County in 1921, and sold to the Dunnellon Women's Club in 1923.

Local Catholics had to travel to Ocala or elsewhere for Mass all the way into the 1960s, when Dunnellon was re-established as a Catholic mission. Read the full parish history. It really does reflect a story of survival, including the loss of a newer church building to fire in 1981. That era is too far outside the scope of this blog for me to relay the story here.

Photo of Holy Redeemer Church in Kissimmee in the 1910s
Holy Redeemer Church.
Photo credit: Florida Memory.
I tried to find out more about the architect who designed the first church in such dramatic fashion. Ledvina also designed the Catholic Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in Kissimmee around the same time - the decade of the 1910s. It looks more like what you'd expect in a Christian church of the time.

Other than that, Mr. Ledvina seems to have vanished from readily available online records. Drop me a line in the comments if you know anything else.