Saturday, August 29, 2020

First diocese in Florida marks 150 years

1886 image of outside of St. Augustine Catholic Church
View of the exterior of the Cathedral of St. Augustine
is from 1886. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)
The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Diocese of St. Augustine. It was Florida's first Catholic diocese when established in 1870.

For nearly 100 years, it was Florida's only diocese, too. The state was mission territory for a long time, despite the fact that the first Europeans to settle here were Catholics who arrived 450 years ago.

The diocese's sesquicentennial was observed Aug. 28, 2020 on the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo. The Algerian priest is one of the church's most important early fathers and the diocese's namesake. A Vespers observance at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine was followed by a talk by Dr. Susan Parker. The whole thing was live-streamed and I've embedded the link at the bottom of this post. Stick with or skip the audio problems of the introduction. The audio of her actual talk is clear. 

Dr. Parker is executive director of the St. Augustine Historical Society. She spoke about what St. Augustine was like in 1870. What a different time it was, in ways beyond the obvious. 

Her research material for the talk included vintage guidebooks, the excellent book, Beyond the Call: The Legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine, and period newspapers. However, local newspapers from 1870 were inaccessible, so she used earlier issues from about 1865 to 1867. What emerged were details of a city in the defeated Confederacy scrambling to find itself after the Civil War ended. 

The City of St. Augustine's Civil Rights record from the mid-20th century is, overall, dismal. Some of the city's earlier history is also unacceptable. It pains me that Fr. Augustin Verot, who became the Diocese of St. Augustine's first bishop, spent much of the Civil War supporting slavery. 

Yet - and here's where we realize how much redemption is possible for everyone - that same bishop jumped to provide education for the newly freed slaves. He raced to his home country, France, and persuaded the Sisters of St. Joseph to come to St. Augustine specificially to start schools for newly emancipated African-Americans. He pivoted quickly from his wartime views. 

Parker said that the St. Augustine diocese was "created at an unsettled time in St. Augustine, the state and nation's history. Bishop Verot was a great help to all St. Augustine residents as they tried to work their way through problems of the time." The bishop was a complicated figure. After I read his biography, I may delve into him in future posts. 

The Sisters of St. Joseph arrived in town in 1866, the same year St. Mary's Academy reopened presumably for white children. Also in 1866, the church's newly free black parishioners "worked to demonstrate religious fervor and claim their new status," Parker said. She also noted that blacks had been part of the parish since its founding in 1565. 

A "Freedman's Fair" took place at St. Mary's Convent the day after Christmas 1866. Its goal was to raise money for improvements to the section of the church where the black parishioners sat. The fair raised $336, Parker said. The internet tells me that's the equivalent of almost $5,500 today. And that tells me local people in St. Augustine took this fundraiser seriously. At that particular place and time, cash was hard to come by for many people.

What else marked daily life in St. Augustine in the latter half of the 1860s? Some tidbits from Parker's talk:

  • A ferry pulled by ropes provided transporation over the San Sebastian River.
  • Maria Sanchez Creek wasn't yet filled in.
  • The town's population was about 2,000 - half black, half white
  • Tourists started returning almost immediately after the war, using guidebooks that sometimes embellished or falsified facts. Some guidebooks were derogatory about the city's Spanish and Catholic roots. 
  • The city spent almost two years under federal martial law.
  • Refugees from Cuba arrived. They were fleeing years of warfare in their home country.
  • In 1867, mail started being delivered a full five times a week.
  • Leisure activities for tourists including sailing in the bay and horseback riding in the countryside.
  • The Sisters of St. Joseph reached out to blacks of all ages for educational purposes.
The Sisters who arrived in 1866 opened their first school for African Americans in 1867 on St. George Street. By the early 20th century, they and other Catholic religious orders and non-Catholics teaching blacks throughout Florida faced resistance and legal maneuvers designed to stop their endeavors. 

They perservered. An interesting comment is in researcher and former teacher Patrick Gibbons' online article on the redefinEd website about one of those maneuvers: "Their struggles reveal how new and alternative educational options have always had to fight for their survival."  So, yes, many things are different now than in 1870. But some things don't seem to change at all.