Sunday, July 26, 2020

Arson or natural causes?

1924 image of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Tallahassee
This image of Blessed Sacrament Catholic
Church is from 1924. The building was used
until 1952, when a larger church was built.
An earlier, wood church burned in the late
1800s. (Photo credit: Florida Memory)
I'm writing this in July 2020. Earlier this month,seven Catholic churches were attacked in less than a week. Six in the United States and one in Canada. The incidents were varied. Fires, vandalism, and general destruction. None of the damage was of natural causes.

I learned all that from an article in Aleteia. I've linked it, although I don't know how long it'll stay active. 

Shortly before reading the article, I'd been scrolling through WPA records of Catholic churches in Florida. Fires were mentioned enough for me to notice.  

The WPA church records were compiled mainly in the late 1930s. They were done as part of the Works Project Administration federal program. Little personality shows through. The records provide basic information, usually on a form. A brief history is sometimes included. You can find these records online at Florida Memory.

Fire was a real and common problem in pioneer settlements here. The annual dry season, flammable wood structures, and lack of firefighting equipment often spelled disaster. Many people built kitchens in separate buildings. That way the rest of the house would escape damage if the cookstove went up in flames.

Yet, evil exists in all times and places. Could some of those early Catholic church fires have been set deliberately? Especially in the 1920s and early 1930s? Some Florida politicians in that era ran campaigns that included bold anti-Catholic platforms.

My second novel,Stitching A Life in Persimmon Hollow, features an antagonist who is anti-Catholic and secretly sets fire to a newly built Catholic church. But that's fiction. Or so I thought while writing the story. Perhaps such things really did occur. 

Some readers complained that the antagonist didn't receive his full due at the end of the novel. But he was a man of wealth and connections. Then, as now, such people often escape justice. 

I don't like to think such people existed in the real frontier world in Florida. But the church records make me re-think some things. The cooperation that existed among denominations here in the late 1800s seems to have vanished by the 1920s and 1930s. Suspicions and dislikes may have grown, stoked by people who like to inflame division and hatred.

We'll likely never know if the Catholic church fires mentioned in the WPA records were caused by lightning, a lit candle, or a human hand. But, considering what's going on in modern times, it's definitely something to think about.

Here are some snippets the WPA documents record about fires:
  • Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary - This Jacksonville church suffered more than one fire: "Constituted 1913. Services in old stable ... until present white, rectangular, Modified Colonial frame building erected and dedicated in 1914, damaged by fire 1923, 1924, additions1923, then services in school auditorium while repairs and remodeling done,1925. 

  • Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church (The Mother of Sorrows) - The church in Tallahassee was “Constituted 1877. Services in building. E. Park Ave., until burned, then in chapel of convent, Monroe and Virginia Sts., until present." (Present being 1936- 1937). The records say a brick structure was built in 1898 and dedicated on Dec. 18 of that year.

  • All Soul's Catholic Church - This church was established in 1885: "... first frame building, pres. site, erected 1887 and used until destroyed by fire in 1932." For the next five years, the congregation attended Mass in the parish school building. During that time, parishioners funded and physically built a new church, which was dedicated in 1937. 

  • Church of St. James - This church never rose from the ashes. The WPA records give its location as Bay County. That's in the Panhandle, in the Panama City region. The WPA says: "Constituted in 1917 ... Services in a white, rectangular, frame structure, with steeple, erected 1917, first services in July, dedicated June 9, 1918, burned May 3, 1936." It seems to have been a mission church of the Church of St. Dominic in Panama City. Records show the St. James church no longer had a pastor after 1935. The parish may have dissolved, as the records indicate it functioned from 1917 to 1935. If so, the building was an unused church when it burned in 1936. 

The Florida Memory onlines archives contain 78 WPA records about Catholic churches in the state. I haven't gone through them all. Not even close. Of the ones I did, I'd guess fire was mentioned in about 30 percent. So, not a majority. Just enough to notice.

I did look twice at the record for St. Alfred's in Perry. It said the church was "blown down" in 1926. Did that happen with help, I wondered. No. A hurricane indeed struck the town in 1926.  

The church seemed to struggle, though. St. Alfred's was downsized to mission status and became known as Perry Roman Catholic Church. It served Perry, Madison, Live Oak, and Lake City. That was tough territory for Catholics at that time. 

Reading about these churches, scant though the information is, makes me think about the people who perservered in their faith here. And the good non-Catholics who stood by them, for they did exist. Yes, there's evil in the world. But the good outweighs it. Always.

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