Sunday, August 14, 2016

1899 church houses vital history

photo of 1899 building that houses Mary S. Harrell Black Heritage Museum
The Mary S. Harrell Black Heritage Museum is housed in a
former Catholic church building constructed in 1899.
(Photo credit: Google Maps - Street View)
The National Register of Historic Places application for the St. Rita's Colored Catholic Mission building in New Smyrna Beach includes fascinating historical details. For purposes of this Catholic-oriented blog post, though, the following anecdotal excerpt paints a vivid portrait for me:
"Later, Sister Genevieve Stanislaus became the superior of the convent and Madonna House. Outraged and provoked by the blatant racism and discrimination still apparent in New Smyrna Beach - especially at the railroad station, public benches, and restaurants in the downtown - Stanislaus sat on 'colored only' benches at the depot, accompanied black children to the beach, and sat in the rear of buses."
I can almost see Sister Stanislaus sitting on a depot bench, draped in a demeanor that dared anyone to interfere.

Sister's resistance didn't take place in the late 19th or early 20th century, the focus of this blog She was a member of the Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine, which ministered in the city's westside black community from 1941 until 1969, the year the local Catholic church (Sacred Heart) integrated. Madonna House was the name of the initial ministry structure, and St. Rita was the chapel name. Later the ministry became known as St. Rita's Colored Catholic Mission.

When I talk about my love of Florida history, it's an observation that's filtered through my viewpoint. Resources available to me are primarily about white history, often from the upper classes. The absence of an abundance of other historical perspectives is disheartening. So I appreciate snippets like the story of Sister Stanislaus, and I thank the Mary S. Harrell Black Heritage Museum for saving that history. (The National Register application credits the museum for the information.)

The Black Heritage Museum is housed in the historic building that was St. Rita's Colored Catholic Mission. Named after Mary S. Harrell, who worked mightily to found and nurture the heritage organization, the museum tells the story of the city's westside community, race relations, and African-American culture.

The reason this shows up in my blog about Frontier Florida is because the building itself dates to 1899. That's the year it was built as Sacred Heart Catholic Church in New Smyrna Beach.  At the time, it was considered an outpost in Catholic mission territory. I'll write more about the church's founding in a later post. In 1956, a new Sacred Heart church building was constructed. The original from 1899 was moved to the westside community and used as St. Rita's Mission. The Diocese of Orlando deeded the building to the heritage museum organization in 1999.

I encourage all to read the full National Register application for its valuable history, and to visit the museum to connect facts on paper to actual artifacts and the local community. And perhaps to learn something new and grow in understanding, something we so desperately need today.

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