Saturday, July 28, 2018

Drexel sisters' philanthropy touched Florida

front of church building in 1950
This photo of St. Peter Claver Church is from 1950.
(Photo credit: St. Peter Claver community)
The St. Peter Claver Catholic community in Tampa is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year (1893-2018). It's a fitting time to remember the roots of this community, plus its links to St. Katharine Drexel and her sister, Louise Drexel Morrell.

Catholics in other areas of the country don't always realize Florida was Catholic mission territory well into the 20th century. I've encountered publications that gloss over Florida's rich Catholic history and the heroic efforts of religious and lay settlers to make sure the "Cross in the Sand"* stayed put.

Historian and pastor Fr. Michael J. McNally helps us remember. In his excellent book, Catholic Parish Life on Florida's West Coast, 1860-1968" (Catholic Media Ministries, 1996), he writes that, in Florida's early years:
"Winter visitors who came from places where Catholicism had a complex infrastructure were often appalled at Florida's lack of ecclesiastical institutions." (142)
These visitors, plus clergy, religious sisters and brothers, and local lay Catholics successfully worked to change that. McNally relates numerous examples. The Drexel sisters are two of the best known. They are widely recognized for philanthropic and spiritual work on behalf of Native Americans and African Americans in the western and southern United States. Less well known is that Florida was among the beneficiaries in the South.

McNally writes that Louise Morrell visited Tampa in 1911 and "conceived the idea of erecting a Catholic church for Tampa's black community" (143). At that time, the community already had St. Peter Claver School, which dates to 1893. (Arsonists torched the first school building.) McNally says that in 1899, Mother Katharine Drexel, as she was known at the time, gave $2,000 to support the educational initiative (189). That's about $57,000 in today's dollars. Saint Drexel also gave more money at later dates, and visited the school in 1904.

The St. Peter Claver Mission's church building was erected in 1915 with money donated by Louise  Morrell. Of note is that no one in the Tampa business community would loan the pastor of nearby Sacred Heart parish the $3,000 needed to build St. Peter Claver church (189). That's equal to about $75,000 in 2018. The first Mass was said on Christmas Day, 1915, in the new mission church that was large enough to seat 200 people.

Louise Morrell supported the St. Peter Claver community into the 1930s. She visited again after 1911, and through the years donated statues, books and school desks in addition to giving financial support. Mother Katharine Drexel is known to have visited Tampa only once - in 1904 - to see St. Peter Claver School. On the same trip, she also journeyed to St. Benedict the Moor School in St. Augustine, another school she helped financially.

Leading ladies of the secular community also supported Catholic efforts in frontier Tampa. McNally mentions such notables as Henry Plant's wife, Margaret K. Plant, and community leader Kate Jackson (143).

But so did regular folk. In nearby San Antonio - Florida not Texas! It's about 30 miles from Tampa - a determined settler started a home school. Marie Cecile Morse was a mother of six who tired of waiting for community leaders to start a Catholic school in newly settled San Antonio. So she started one herself, in her home, in 1883 with 14 students. I'll tell that story in a future blog post.


*Cross in the Sand, The Early Catholic Church in Florida, 1513-1870, by the late historian and  former priest Michael Gannon, and Fr. McNally's books on church history in South and West Florida, should be required reading for those interested in Florida's Catholic history.