Friday, March 4, 2011

A Lost/Last Brother in Florida

During this last week I've been in St. Augustine, Florida, where LASSCA (Lasallian Association of Secondary School Chief Administrators) and the RCCB (Regional Conference of Christian Brothers) had their meetings, which I attended to give a workshop, a short talk, and also a regional vocation ministry report to the Visitors. The place is a sort of Santa Fe / Carmel combination, with the Atlantic on one side and a whole lot of flat land, filled with tropical-like vegetation, on the other; plus the warm weather to match. During our time here and at this time of year, it was quite nice, especially when compared to other parts of the country. There even was a chance to take a walking tour of the city, primarily featuring the contributions to the city by one Henry Morrison Flagler, the Bill Gates of his day, whose fancy 19th century hotel is now Flagler College.

The thing that was really surprising and memorable, however, was the discovery that the Brothers had been here from 1859 until 1864, when the Civil War led to their departure. Plus, it was said, there was a Brother buried in the old Catholic cemetery somewhere around here. And so during a brief respite from our meetings, Br. Tim Coldwell, Br. Larry Schatz and I set out for a walk-about and eventually found the old Catholic cemetery, closed in 1884 and now called the Tolomato cemetery, because it was located on the site of the original Tolomato Indian village. It was surrounded by a significant fence topped by barbed wire. Apparently, the place had become quite the destination for an evening visit, perhaps by one of the many "ghost walks" that were advertised along the tourist lanes of the town, and so the cemetery was made inaccessible except for every 3rd Saturday when docents would be present.

While Larry was quite willing to jump the fence, we persuaded him to desist and instead stopped by the Catholic cathedral downtown. Walking into the small bookshop inside, we introduced ourselves as Christian Brothers to the ladies behind the counter, and one of them exclaimed: "I wrote you guys a couple of years ago!" She was one of the cemetery's docents and had written to tell us about the grave of the Brother who was buried there. Finding out that we would only be there another day, she contacted the lady with the key to the cemetery and a couple of hours later Tim and I were at the cemetery for a 45-minute tour of the place, complete with a full history. Of the 1000 of so people buried there, only 105 headstones remain, one of which is the one for Br. Louis Gonzaga, aged 35 years and 9 months, who died on July 17th, 1861, and whose headstone was "Erected by the Catholics of the city of St. Augustine as a Tribute of respect for the memory of" him.

Elizabeth, the cemetery guide, also told us about a Sister Thomas Joseph at the Sisters of Saint Joseph convent in town, who wrote a history about their order in the area and who had written about the Brothers who had been there as well. So on the following day, prior to our meetings, I wandered my way over to the convent, rang the bell at 8:15 AM, and ended up spending some 20 minutes with the 84-year-old nun. At the end of our visit, she provided me with a copy of her book. The information in it about the Brothers is sketchy but precious.

The Brothers' house was located on the edge of the Sisters' present property, "where the dumpsters are now", and the Sisters lived in that house for about ten years after the Brothers had left. Apparently there were three Brothers, thought to have come from New Orleans, although Br. Tim Coldwell (the Visitor of the NOSF District) can't quite figure out how that could have been possible, since the NOSF District was officially started later than 1859. Or perhaps they had come from Canada. Elizabeth and Sister Thomas Joseph couldn't understand why they hadn't gone to Savannah instead (a couple of hours away), but Tim and I think that it's because the bishop of the area had come from Le Puy in France, where both the Brothers and the Sisters of St. Joseph had been located. Certainly the bishop would have invited the orders he had known from his home town and located them in the place with the greatest concentration of Catholics.

Once the Civil War began, according to Elizabeth, the Brothers took their boarders to Jacksonville in order to put them on a train back to the Northeast, from whence they had come, and in Jacksonville they stayed with a gentleman "of the Protestant persuasion" - according to
the records, although which records I don't know - whom they impressed with their piety. There's precious little else that we know about it all. But I think it's all quite fascinating.

So consider this entry as a bit of history, boring or exciting depending on your point of view. Here we have a Brother who was relatively lost to history, except in the memory of those whose lives he had touched and who erected a headstone as a tribute of respect. A last and lasting memorial.

It seems that age brings a greater appreciation of history, especially when you find a little informational gem like this in an unexpected place like St. Augustine. Sort of makes you wonder what other gems are lying about in our lives, all within reach but for the want of curiosity. Reminds me of the title of a little favorite book of mine, the collected gems from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, entitled "I Asked for Wonder."

What more could you want?