Slaves were freed; nuns were arrested; Martin Luther King Jr. planned civil rights rallies. These events are all key elements in the history of St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Complex in Lincolnville. For nearly a century, the church’s tumultuous and exciting history occurred under the leadership of a special group of Catholic priests known as the Josephites.
The name “Josephites” comes from St. Joseph who is honored in the church as the first missionary. The Josephites are all part of the St. Joseph Society of the Sacred Heart. A courageous mission, their entire purpose when the movement began in 1871 was to serve and minister to newly freed slaves. This was made possible when Pope Pius IX handed down the Negro Oath. The oath states in part that priests assigned to this duty would “vow and solemnly declare that I will make myself the father and servant of the Negroes; nor shall I ever take up any other work which might cause me to abandon or in any way neglect the special care of the Negroes.”
The Josephite’s mission has since evolved into the broader and continuing task of assisting all of the black community.
In St. Augustine, the Josephites worked to build the school, church and rectory of St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Complex, the first African-American parish of the St. Augustine Diocese. But finding the funds and persevering past prejudices was both challenging and rewarding.
Jess May, chairman of the Rectory Renovation committee at St. Benedict, recently traveled to the Josephite headquarters in Baltimore, Md., to research the church’s history, mainly found in the publications, “Mission Work Among the Negroes and Indians, (1892-1926)” and “The Colored Harvest (1908-1966).” Both shed light on the historic struggles and triumphs of this special ministry.
The first to come to St. Augustine to serve in this capacity was Bishop John Moore in 1877. In a document dated 1892, Moore notes he is purchasing land for a church in Lincolnville, with the intention of using it exclusively for a church and school for African-Americans. In 1898, Moore mentions they were using “an old building” that Henry Flagler had loaned the church, but he was anxious to replace that with a new church-school complex at a cost of between $5,000 and $8,000. There were 105 Catholic African-American families in St. Augustine then by his count.
Help from a future saint
“They are as good Catholics on the average as can be found anywhere. I am anxious to do my best for them and implore the help of the commission to enable me to do so,” he said. His prayers were answered later that year when Sister Katharine Drexel, now a canonized saint, donated $5,000 from a family inheritance. It became one of the first all-black Catholic schools in Florida.
When Bishop William J. Kenny arrived in 1902, he wrote a letter saying, “Much prejudice still exists in our state against the church, and the work among the colored is exceedingly difficult; nevertheless, we have made some progress and the prospects are still bright.”
Later in 1910, Kenny said, “I am glad to be able to say that our work among the colored people of this diocese is meeting with fairly good success. Our priests and sisters are devoting the utmost care and attention to it.” He added that they were still having difficulties procuring donations to the building fund, because most people were supporting the Protestant churches. The church was consecrated in 1911.
In October 1914, the first Josephite father arrived. The Rev. J.B. Albert oversaw the construction of the rectory, church and school for the next two years. The rectory housed all the Josephite fathers who would serve there.
The 1915 Parish Annual Summary Report shows an average of 300 members in the congregation. Through the next five decades, that number would fluctuate to as high as 470 in 1925-26 to a low of 151 in 1964. In this same time period the number of students ranged from a low of 57 in 1915 to 118 in 1962.
Sisters arrested on Jim Crow violation
In 1916, Sisters Mary Thomasine, Mary Scholastica and Mary Beningus were arrested on Easter Sunday, charged with an interpretation of the Jim Crow law for the “crime” of white teachers teaching black students. School soon resumed when they were acquitted because a judge ruled the law did not apply to private schools.
In January 1917, Bishop Curley reported the parish was now in “splendid working order,” with the rectory occupied by the Rev. John Lyons. “There is no more complete little parish in the country for the colored than ours here in St. Augustine … The school is essential to the life of the work, hence I beg the board to give us sufficient (funding) to keep our schools going.”
An historical highlight was the blessing of the bell on Sunday, Aug. 12, 1923. In addition to a strong turnout by local parishioners, about 50 members and the pastor from Jacksonville’s St. Pius’ Church arrived in hired buses to join the celebration. “Joy and gladness was the dominant note” as the congregation assembled for the ceremony. Sounds of the peal of the organ, the hymns by the parish choir, the recitation of the Holy Rosary and prayers ruminated throughout the mission church. The Rev. Francis Linton S.S.J., now the popular young pastor, officiated in the chanting to dedicate the new bell.
Linton compared the significance of this bell ceremony with the day the representatives of the original 13 colonies assembled in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence. The just-blessed bell would be known as “The Assumption” in honor of the Feast of the Assumption.
Tough times hit the parish
The depression in 1933 hit St. Augustine hard. Winter visitors and tourists were too strapped to make their usual annual trip south, leaving little work for locals. The Rev. Edward Blasius S.S.J. wrote that the people had always been able to meet their obligations, but after three bank failures “their purses are as flat as punctured auto tires.” One of his parishioners said it best: “We live on sick Yankees in the winter time and grits and fish in the summer time. Fish are plentiful in the Florida waters but now the poor Negroes are often not able even to buy the grits.”
During the Christmas season of ’33, Blasius lamented, “We are about as near to the rocks as we can go with safely.” The church’s flooring had been torn out due to dangerous wear and tear but they could not afford to replace it. He said the church looked like a stable in Bethlehem as they’d probably have to “shake some straw on the floor” for Christmas Eve.
On May 4, 1941, St. Benedict hosted the first Diocesan Convention for Negro Catholics. The Rev. Charles Crowley played host during the daylong event that was attended by the Bishop Most Reverend Joseph Patrick Hurley, as well as reverends from St. Louis, Mo., Mobile, Ala., and Florida representatives from Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville. Sisters interested in Catholic education among African-Americans also attended. Hurley delivered the keynote speech, in which he expressed hope and urged delegates to take encouragement from each other.
In 1958, the Rev. Michael Flaherty made church renovations and redecoration a priority. In an article in “The Colored Harvest, Volume 70,” Flaherty was described as “one of God’s noblemen, with a keen Celtic wit, and a brilliance of mind which makes his sermons most appealing and interesting and a sense of humor which is so necessary in these times of stress and tension.”
Sisters M. Robert, M. Immaculate and M. Celeste of the St. Augustine diocese were teaching about 100 children of various ages that year. The church’s African-American parishioners numbered 162, but it was noted that white communicants also filled the pews, finding the church inspiring.
Civil rights movement
In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. used the rectory as a meeting place to plan marches to support the civil rights movement. The school was soon closed when St. Augustine’s schools were desegregated following the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
After 1966, when the Josephite fathers’ work was completed in St. Augustine, the building was used sparingly.
May said that the rectory was used for coffee services after 8 a.m. Mass as well as a hosting area for potluck and meetings.
Unfortunately, the building fell into disrepair. It needed better air conditioning installed, the floors to be redone and much more. A total of $75,000 was spent to completely renovate the building, and now the building has been seeing a lot more usage, such as group meetings and other gatherings.
St. Benedict the Moor rectory has seen a lot within its time and the four walls of the building live on to tell the story.
Record reporter Kimeko McCoy contributed to this story.
1871 — The Josephite Fathers begin their mission.
1892 — Bishop Moore plans to purchase land for a church in Lincolnville.
1898 — Planning for the school in Lincolnville begins.
1914 — The first Josephite father arrives in St. Augustine. Construction of the rectory begins.
1916 — Sisters Mary Thomasine, Mary Scholastica and Mary Beningus were arrested and charged with an interpretation of the Jim Crow law.
1923 — Blessing of the bell brings a strong turnout from members and Jacksonville.
1933 — The Great Depression hits St. Augustine and St. Benedict is in disrepair.
1941 — St. Benedict hosts the first Diocesan Convention for Negro Catholics.
1958 — Father Michael Flaherty makes church renovations and redecoration a priority.
1964 — Martin Luther King Jr. visits the church to plan rallies during the civil rights movement.
1966 — Archbishop Joseph Hurley releases Father Kelleher from St. Augustine duties.
2010 — The rectory sees renovations begin.