Thursday, June 27, 2019

Polk County pioneers kept faith alive

1890 image of buildings in Winter Haven, Florida
As this Florida Memory photo shows, Polk County was
sparsely settled in 1890. This scene shows the town of
Winter Haven, 10 miles from Haines City.
The year: 1890.
The place: Haines City, formerly known as Clay Cut.
The people: A husband and wife, two Italian railroad laborers, and a Jesuit priest.
The occasion: The first Catholic Mass in Haines City.

Mass attendance of four, plus celebrant Fr. Philip de Carriere, S.J., says a lot about the state of Catholicism in parts of frontier Florida. Catholics in Florida in that era went to extraordinary lengths to practice their faith.

Haines City is in Polk County in the south-central part of the state. Even 30 years after that first Mass, its population was less than 800. But the faith took hold in the hearts of its few Catholic settlers. Today, St Ann Catholic Church in Haines City is testament to that early effort.

The road was long and circuitous, though. It wasn't until 1949 that St. Ann's began as a Mission Chapel. For many years before that, Catholics in Haines City often traveled 10 miles down the road to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Winter Haven to worship. In fact, the 1949 Haines City chapel was a mission of St. Joseph's.

The story of the man who arranged for the 1890 Mass in Haines City is told on the St. Joseph's website. His name is Patrick Bannon, and he's credited as being the first Catholic in Polk County.

The St. Joseph's history is an interesting read. Upon arrival and establishment in Haines City from New York, Bannon would travel 60 miles to Mass in Tampa. That's 60 miles by horse and buggy in pre-air-conditioning, pre-development, pre-everything Florida. After the 1890 Mass, Fr. de Carriere returned to Haines City two years later to baptize a Bannon baby - who went on to become a Sister of St. Joseph in St. Augustine. Another Mass was celebrated in the Bannon home in 1895. At that time, Bannon offered $500 for construction of a church in Haines City. That's about $15,000 in modern money. Alas, nothing came of the effort.

In an article about St. Ann's 50th anniversary, the June 21-July 11 edition of The Florida Catholic says Mass was said in Haines City private homes in the years between 1890 and 1949. But it's a safe guess the Bannon family was in attendance when the first Mass was said at St. Joseph Church in Winter Haven on Thanksgiving Day, 1914. Bishop Michael J. Curley traveled down from St. Augustine to bless the building. The church was a mission of the Jesuits in Tampa, and the town was so rustic that chickens and cows wandered along the main street.

The region's Catholic population was still small, but growing and dedicated to faith. By 1925, the St. Joseph congregation outgrew its 1914 building and a new church was constructed. Still, this was early Florida. The website history says that the man who carved the candlesticks - Matt Smith -- would drive his car up to the door of the church during power failures, to supplement the candlelight.

The light of faith still shines today in both Haines City and Winter Haven.

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