Thursday, September 15, 2016

A mission to educate

old newspaper photo of St. Joseph's Academy
I saw this photo of a Catholic academy while browsing vintage Florida newspapers online, and was immediately intrigued. First, I was surprised, because the photo was part of a large ad telling of the virtues of the academy. Then my questions arose. Where was Loretto? What happened to the school? Why had I never heard of either?

Little did I expect that research would reveal a fascinating thread of Florida Catholic history.

Started as an educational initiative soon after the Civil War, the academy had evolved into a boarding school for boys by the time the ad was placed in the 1890s.  As the photo states, the school was situated in what was then the town of Loretto. The community was later swallowed by the giant city of Jacksonville, but it retains its named distinction today and is considered a neighborhood.

Loretto is adjacent to the historically significant Mandarin, now also a neighborhood. In fact, the other photo on this page is from an article that locates the St. Joseph's Church and school as being in Mandarin itself. This second photo is from a 1914 encyclopedic publication with the unwieldy title of The Catholic Church in the United States of America,Undertaken to Celebrate the Golden Jubilee of His Holiness, Pope Pius X. At the time, the mission of Mandarin was considered 13 miles south of Jacksonville. More interesting, the mission was first visited by a priest from St. Augustine in 1787. Florida wasn't yet Florida at that time. The land was under Spanish rule.

1914 photo of St. Joseph Church and school
The first church - I guess the first St. Jospeh's - was built in 1858, very early by Florida frontier standards. By that time, Florida was a U.S. state and the Mandarin Mission had suffered from pressure and resistance from non-Catholics. The congregation of St. Joseph's was smaller than it had been more than a half-century earlier. Fr. John Chambon's 1863 census reported 120 Catholics. In comparison, from 140 to 150 baptisms alone were performed during the six-year period between 1787 and 1793.

Fr. Chambon is considered the founder of the mission, but a Fr. de la Fosse of St. Augustine is credited with starting the school in 1868 with Sister Mary Julia and Sister Mary Bernard of the Sisters of St. Joseph, also of St. Augustine, according to the Golden Jubilee book. A full history of the still-vibrant St. Joseph's Church is featured on the parish website and it tells how Sisters Julia and Bernard traveled 27 miles by oxcart to start teaching. They lived a mile from the school and once got lost in the thick undergrowth and wandered around until late into the night.

The academy grew into a boarding school after the sisters started taking in boarders to help offset costs. It grew in stature, too, according to the parish history, and had students from as far away as Cuba. The sisters also taught free day school for boys and girls. Because of segregation laws, the sisters had to teach the African-American students in a separate building.

The academy lasted just shy of a century. It closed in 1963, after a remarkable run. The associated church remains a vibrant parish, and its online history is well worth reading. Not only does it provide an overview, it includes details that help convey the challenges faced by Catholics who served in Florida when it was mission territory. I salute them.

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