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.

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