Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Cassadaga, Spiritualism, and Purgatory

1920s image of Cassadaga
This early image of Cassadaga was taken 
 before the pictured hotel burned down in 1926.
(Credit: West Volusia Historical Society)
This is a perfect time to write about the early days of the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. The trio of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day - Oct. 31, Nov. 1, and Nov. 2 - brings close the world beyond. 

Halloween reminds us of hauntings and otherworldly beings. All Saints and All Souls days are when Catholics formally remember, honor, and pray for those who've left this world. Many non-Catholics are familiar with those two days because they know of Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead, Nov. 1-2) observances. 

As a Catholic, I believe in an afterlife. Spiritualists do, too, but their faith's tenets include belief in the ability to communicate with the dead. 

This belief has opened the faith to ridicule and charlatans. But it also has attracted true believers and casual interactors who find comfort in contacts channeled by mediums. The Cassadaga website defines a medium as a person "who is capable of receiving communication from people who were once living on the earth and have passed into the spirit world."

The now-famous Spiritualist camp in Cassadaga has its roots in both otherwordly guidance and regular old American ingenuity. First, the otherwordly. A Wisconsin-based medium named George Colby is said to have fallen into a trance and been led by a spirit guide to a spot in the wilderness of frontier Florida in the early 1870s.

There was nothing there - not even historic, adjacent Lake Helen had been founded yet. The entire county in 1870 was populated by only about 3,000 people. (It's 500,000 today.) We're talking total isolation. But Colby filed a homestead claim for 75 acres in 1880 and proved up on his land. 

Colby was prescient about his choice. He had immediately discerned a distinct aura hovering over the land. In 1895, he donated 34 of his acres to the nonprofit Southern Cassadaga Camp Spiritualist Association, the legal name of the spiritualist camp. It was the birth of what would become "a mecca for Spiritualists," writes John J. Guthrie Jr. in Cassadaga: The South's Oldest Spiritualist Community (University Press of Florida, 2000). 

The ingenuity part is explained in Guthrie's essay. In the early 1890s, Spiritualists from upstate New York organized winter camp meetings in the Florida community of DeLeon Springs. These proved popular. And - also somewhat surprisingly to me - the locals embraced the Spiritualists. 

Locals flocked to the special events and lectures presented at the winter meetings by speakers who included Colby. Guthrie writes that one Sunday, 300 DeLand residents hopped an excursion train to travel the 8 miles to DeLeon Springs and attend a meeting.

DeLeon Springs leaders offered economic incentives to entice the Spiritualist association to establish a permanent Southern branch. Spiritualist leaders didn't choose their permanent winter site rashly. They checked out many Florida locations including Daytona Beach, New Smyrna, Tampa, and St. Petersburg. An offer of 25 acres and municipal bonds helped them select DeLeon Springs. Until. 

For some reason, Colby - an active member of the Spiritualist community - waited until association board members had considered all other options for a permanent winter location. Then he invited them to visit his land, about 15 miles south of DeLeon Springs. Two important Spiritualist women leaders, Emma J. Huff and Marion Skidmore, toured his property. Guthrie writes that both believed the site "radiated spiritual harmony." 

Colby's location had all the right ingredients for the association. In 1895, he donated the 34 acres to the nonprofit Southern Cassadaga Camp Spiritualist Association. The settlement grew from that seed, as its online history explains. Today, the 57-acre camp is a major tourist destination and also a quiet year-round community where believers live and practice their faith.

I've been to Cassadaga more than a few times. Early during my newspaper reporting years, I went there to write articles about the camp, the religion, and its enduring appeal to tourists. I also covered a dispute among community members over the settlement's water system. From reading Cassadaga, I've learned that internal warfare is nothing new to the Spiritualists. Infighting is as alive and well in that religion as in every other one.

Another time, I went on a historic walking tour of the settlement, which is a rural hamlet with a quaint atmosphere. The walking tour was at dusk and the quiet of evening was settling on the houses and community buildings. (Residents own their houses but the association owns all the land.) 

A sense of calm serenity surrounded the group. The tour guide pointed out architectural details and shared historical details. He also said members of the spirit world are always near at hand in the community.

As we climbed a slight incline and stopped in front of one of the historic houses, a wave of sadness came over me. I had a distinct sense that someone - something? - was associated with this particular house. Perhaps a person who once lived there, or who had been contacted by a medium who lived there. I wondered if it was more than one person, or spirit. I felt sad for whatever or whomever was sending out this emotion.

I didn't dwell on the incident afterward. I shelved it and went on with my life. Then, recently, I read the short novel Tortured Soul, by Theresa Linden. It's about souls in Purgatory, in particular one lost soul and his interaction with the living. Like the proverbial light bulb going off, I immediately thought of my encounter with sadness at the house on the Cassadaga walking tour. 

Without getting into theology, Catholics believe Purgatory is a purification of souls who need to atone for earthly sins before reaching Heaven. I imagine it's like an abyss of sadness because of the absence of God. Prayer is how those of us on earth help souls in Purgatory move closer to the eternal light. 

You don't hear much about Purgatory today. It was an important part of my religious education  in my youth. Over the years, I let it slide to the corners of my faith. But now I make it a regular habit to keep the souls in Purgatory in my prayers.

Was that sadness I noted in Cassadaga a brief link with a soul or souls in need? I'll never know. But I pray that their sadness soon turns to joy. 

Screengrab from Google Streetview of Cassadaga main entrance
This Google StreetView image shows how much
Cassadaga retains a historical quaintness.