Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Resisting a secular land grab

Cover of The Florida Catholic Heritage Trail online document
I'm stepping back a few decades earlier than usual in this post. That's so I can share information about how Florida property was stolen from the Catholic church. 

We hear a lot about how land was taken from other groups during the formative years of our country. I'm going to guess you've never heard about this particular land grab. 

The time period in focus in this post is the early 1820s. That's when Florida was removed from Spanish control and put under the umbrella of the United States. Florida wasn't yet a state. It became a U.S. territory in 1821. 

Rather than listen to me, read the direct explanation from The Florida Catholic Heritage Trail. The detailed Trail document from the Florida Catholic Conference was published in 2005. It was edited by now-deceased author and scholar Michael Gannon. Here's what the document says about the seizure:

"With the change of flags in East Florida in 1821, the parish of St. Augustine suffered substantial loss. Claiming that they were the property of Spain, not of the church, U.S. federal officials seized the church building, burial ground, episcopal residence (statehouse in British times), the former Franciscan convent, and Nombre de Dios."

Nice, huh? I'm sure church authorities differed about that perception of ownership. The U.S. government didn't care. Its agents saw a chance to grab prime real estate and thwart a "foreign" religion. 

The bishop in Charleston at the time, Bishop John England, managed to wrestle the church and cemetery out of U.S. hands. Or, as the Trail document says, he "secured their return" to the church in 1823. This wasn't just any old church building. It was the church we know today as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, the first and oldest Catholic parish in the United States.

The bishop had to be content with the return of those two properties. The episcopal residence building and land were given to Protestants. The Episcopal Church built Trinity Church on the site in 1831.

The St. Francis Barracks - the convent where friars once prayed - was no longer a sacred space even in 1821. So I concede the site appeared rather secular to incoming U.S. authorities.

The Franciscan friars had left during the 20-year British occupation of Florida in the late 1700s. The British confiscated and converted the barracks to military quarters. Spain continued the usage. The U.S. followed suit. The property went on to house Confederate and then Union troops. By then, Florida was a state and embroiled in the Civil War. The renovated property may be familiar to you today as headquarters of the Florida National Guard

As for the important and historic Mission Nombre de Dios, at least some of the site found its way back into the fold of the church. But I don't know how big the original site was, how much was returned, or when. All I know is that the beautiful waterfront mission is definitely part of the Diocese of St. Augustine.

For Catholics, the mission site is sacred ground. The first Catholic Mass in the United States was celebrated there. The first Marian shrine in the United States was founded there. In 2019, the U.S. Catholic bishops elevated The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche (at the mission site) to the status of a national shrine.

The secular authorities tried, but they couldn't wipe out the faith's presence or influence. Millions visit the Cathedral and Mission Nombre de Dios every year. The faithful go to pray, others visit for historic or cultural reasons. God's presence is palpable to me at both places. May others also feel his peace. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Catholic fundraisers part of frontier life

Photo showing aerial view of Palatka in 1800s
Palatka in earlier days. Photo credit:
Palatka Railroad Preservation Society
Church and parochial school fundraisers are and were a staple of Catholic life. In Florida, that was as true a century ago as it is today.

On superficial levels, the fundraisers on the Florida frontier were different. For example, in 1911 a benefit performance for the Sisters of St. Joseph in Palatka featured musical performances. But, oh, how the music has changed. 

The event was written up in The Palatka News on June 30, 1911, and given the headline "Benefit A Big Success." The benefit netted $44.25 in 1911 dollars. That's almost $1,200 today. 

That's not too shabby, when you consider certain facts. Tickets cost only 10 cents, about $2.75 today. The event took place in a Florida summer in the days before air conditioning. Can you say sweltering? And the city's population at that time was only about 3,800 people. Finally, anti-Catholicism was rearing its head in Florida in 1911.

The news reporter was impressed by the event's proceeds, the size of the crowd, and the artists who performed. Most were "well known local artists." They treated the audience to violin solos, piano music, and vocal and spoken performances. The setting was nice, too - a local theater named the Orpheum.

The songs named were mysteries to me: "Sergeant Kitty," "Listening to the Vesper Bells," "Pheenie," "You Give Me Your Love." The audience loved the Vesper Bells song so much they gave singer Mrs. Louis Kalkfield an encore. I wish I knew her first name. Married women in those days were identified in public by their husband's names. 

The fundraiser also featured a "special picture of incidents in the life of Christ." No other explanation is given. It made me wonder if the picture depicted the Stations of the Cross.  A Catholic news reporter would have said as much, but a non-Catholic reporter might not have known that.

All in all, the event seems to have been a high point in town on a quiet summer day in 1911. 

The Sisters of St. Joseph operated an academy in Palatka for decades. The school was still popular enough in 1922 that The Palatka News found it necessary to squash rumors that the academy was closing. The May 24, 1922 edition placed a prominent notice on Page 2, just above an etching and tidbit about the inventor of the Eskimo Pie.

The Sisters, though, got the largest headline on the page: "St. Joseph's Will Not Close School." The notice said the Sisters of St. Joseph's Academy wished to correct a rumor that the school wouldn't open for the fall semester. There was no foundation to the rumor and the Sisters were at a loss to determine how it got started.

My cynical side suspects the rumor started in the anti-Catholicism that had become prevalent in Florida by the early 1920s. But, as with the original rumor, I have no foundation for my musings. Just general knowledge of the political and religious climates of that time in Florida.

The Sisters of St. Joseph had a deep footprint in Palatka by 1922. They had opened their school in the riverfront city in 1876. I learned that from a 2008 dissertation by Barbara E. Mattick that's accessible online via the Florida State University Digital Library. The doctoral disseration covers the ministries of the Catholic Sisters of St. Augustine over the course of 61 years. I look forward to reading more of its 226 pages.

St. Joseph's Academy lasted a few years beyond the rumor days. A 2001 article in The Orlando Sentinel said the academy was replaced by a parish school named St. James in 1929.

Many Catholic schools struggle to stay open today. They and our Catholic churches need our support more than ever. May the next fundraiser you attend, in person or online, be filled with beautiful music and open hearts. 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

People and places, Florida north and south

Finding information about frontier Florida's black residents isn't always easy when digging for voices from the past. Many were too busy scraping a living and raising families to find time to record memoirs or write in diaries. Some couldn't read or write. They - as well as distinguihed blacks and those of means - faced years of discrimination from societies and organizations established to preserve local histories. 

So, I enjoyed watching the videos - shared here - that offer a glimpse from opposite ends of the state. The first gives a brief overview of sites associated with black history in Miami. They include the first house owned by a black person in Miami.

The other video is the introduction to Florida's Black History Channel, a YouTube channel about the history of the Glenwood neighborhood in Panama City in the Florida Panhandle. While the Miami video depicts places, the Panama City ones focus on people who share memories of days gone by. 

One thing became clear soon after I started watching the Panama City videos. It's a refrain that held true in my own youth. Neighborhoods were tight-knit and everyone kept an eye on all the local youth. Adults stepped in where and when needed, as needed. That was as true in my Brooklyn city youth as it was in the sandy backroads of country Florida. We've lost that, all of us. And that's a sad realization.

City of Miami - Black History video. Click on the photo to watch the video or use this link: https://youtu.be/T5LNGKbcEC4

Screengrab from City of Miami Black History video

Introduction video on the Black History Channel: Click on the photo to watch the video or use this link: https://youtu.be/k8kXOKP-6zg

Screengrab from Black History Channel's introduction video