Sunday, October 28, 2018

Florida's first Catholic school

Black-and-white photo of students outside Mary Immaculate Convent in Key West in the 1890s
Saint Mary Star of the Sea school students gather outside
Mary Immaculate Convent in Key West in the 1890s. The
school was attached to the convent, and was operated by the
Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
Photo credit: Florida Memory
Key West is famous for many reasons. A few don't align with typical Margaritaville lore. Such as the fact that the first Catholic school in Florida was in, you guessed it, Key West.

A handful of brave Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary ventured south, way south, from Canada to Key West, in 1868 at the request of Florida's then-bishop, Augustin Verot. The congregation's website offers an overview of the sisters' Florida history. It notes that the bishop, "Dreading the introduction of the Sisters to their first Florida summer," suggested an autumn arrival. Smart move, that.

The sisters' destination was the parish of Saint Mary Star of the Sea. The church was built in 1852. It was not only the first Catholic church in Key West, it was the first in South Florida. And only the fifth Catholic church in all of Florida. The church today is a Basilica. To learn more about its history, check the footnote links on its Wikipedia page. They'll take you to archived history pages. The church's website also offers a history book for sale.

Heat, humidity, and tropical climate aside, the sisters faced an adventure from the start. A fierce storm snapped the masts off the ship on which they traveled. They "prayed fervently for protection" and were grateful to reach their destination alive. But their first view of Key West didn't impress them, even though Key West was the largest city in Florida at the time. It had a population of about 5,000.

"A curious crowd of onlookers" met the sisters at the pier, where, thankfully, the church's assistant pastor also waited. And the sisters' first residence was a former Civil War barracks that was being used by locals as a goat barn. I kid you not. The story of the journey and arrival is on the congregation's website, with portions also posted on the current Basilica School of Saint Mary Star of the Sea's website.

One of the sisters died less than a year later, from yellow fever, which also claimed the priests on the island. Life could be tough in Key West. Safe to say they weren't drinking margaritas on Duval Street.

The sisters persevered, as Catholic sisters always do. Within a decade, they had consecutively opened schools for local white children, local African-American children, and local Cuban girls. Each group was in a separate school because of segregation laws. Students of all colors followed the same curriculum, and were taught by many of the same teachers.

After 115 years of service, the sisters left Key West in 1983. Their legacy remains, though, in the parish, the school, and in the descendants of the hundreds of youth they taught in a Key West that is no more.