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. 

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