Jesus took Peter, James and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. … from a shining cloud a voice is heard … and Abraham answered “Here I am!” And, Peter said: Lord, it is good for us to be here – let us build a tent. In the words of Paul, I ask you: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
This weekend we celebrate our 132nd founding “birthday.” As we recall the beginnings of our community here in central Florida, those snippets I read from this weekend’s Scriptural readings – arranged to suit this writer – sketch out the story of our founding Sisters quite nicely. My challenge is to be true to the history of 132 years without diminishing its impact as I condense it to a few printed pages. So, I’m giving you the “Reader’s Digest” or “Cliff Notes” version of the story I know.
The year was 1889. From central Florida, the voice of God spoke in the guise of Father Gerard Pilz: “Please come and educate these children.” A Sister-friend said: yes – let me see who will join me. In a document dated February 15, 1889, Bishop Phelan of Pittsburgh and Bishop Moore of Florida and Mother Adelgunda agreed and said to the Sisters: “Know that you give up all claims on the Pittsburgh community – Go in peace.” That was on February 15th. By the evening of February 24th, Dolorosa gathered Boniface, Josephine and Agatha for a transfer of vows ritual that Agnes witnessed. Later, she said “Wait for me, I’m coming, too.”
On February 25, 1889 there was a 6’ snowfall when the troop boarded the train as it left Alleghany County, PA. They arrived travel-worn, feeling bouts of fear, excitement and hesitation, in San Antonio, Florida three days later on February 28, 1889, where it was a toasty 80 degrees. The townsfolk hadn’t quite finished the renovations on their future home so the Sisters stayed a stone’s throw away in the Dallas House just outside the town square.
Now you’ll recall that Peter, James and John went UP a mountain with Jesus. These ladies traveled, DOWN…down south and south some more to almost the tip of the south-eastern-most state in the union. DOWN below the southern tip of an area commonly referred to as the “Bible belt.”
Jesus told his disciple, “Tell the vision to no one.” These Sisters were informally commissioned to “spread the news everywhere.” Beginning the day after their arrival, they founded Holy Name Academy, their first school in their home and assumed administration of Saint Anthony Parish School, March 1, 1889 and shortly thereafter the school three miles away in St. Joseph. From 1929 to 1959, the community also operated St. Benedict Prep School for boys too young to attend the nearby Abbey school. These ladies in strange long black dresses, riding on a donkey, were known to pay “pop in” visits on farmers and ranchers, absent school children and Sunday Mass absentees. They fed the hungry, looked after the sick and buried the dead.
In the long view of history, this growing band of visionaries who just could not say NO, were involved in all levels of education: early ed to college, adult education and tutoring programs. They were teachers, drama directors, musicians, school bus drivers, coaches for debate and sports teams. They established a litany of schools as well as weekend and summer catechetical programs in: Quincy, Ocala, Inverness, Floral City, Leesburg, Dade City, Brooksville, DeLand; Deer Lake Camp, Good Counsel Camp, Camp Lake Jovita. There were schools in honor of a roll call of saints: Holy Family, St. Anthony and St. Paul, Santa Fe, St. Lawrence and St. Martha. St. Boniface in Olfen, TX, St. Teresa in New Orleans, St. Margaret Mary and Our Lady of Lourdes in Slidell, LA and Annunciation in Bogalusa, MS. In 1902 three of the Florida foundresses (and two others, one a postulant, later a prioress, Mother Annunciata) again said yes to a voice calling them into service. Along with Benedictine women from Covington, KY they answered the plea of the Bishop of Birmingham, AL to make a new foundation that today thrives in Cullman, AL.
In 1911, the three-story – once-hotel, now Holy Name Convent – was suspended on logs and pulled by oxen for the move from San Antonio plaza, a ½ mile up an incline to the shores of Lake Jovita. The story is relatively routine for the intervening years until 1930 when there was an infusion of eight young, energetic postulants. Several more candidates entered after WWII and the community grew to 65 members by the late 1950s. By then, certification was required of all teachers in any educational setting: public or faith-based. Our Sisters took weekend and night classes (no on-line, virtual classes in those days!). They crammed as many courses as possible into what we’d laughingly call “summer vacation” time. Some were released to “go away” for a semester or a year or so to further their education.
Then, began a new flurry of activity. In 1959, the place the Sisters called home and housed the girls’ boarding school, was declared by code unfit for occupancy. Result – Sisters and the girls were temporarily housed at St. Anthony School and with some families in town. The “old building” was demolished and a new Holy Name Priory was erected just across the original driveway. In a short span of time, the Benedictine Sisters began collaboration with the monks of Saint Leo Abbey to extend the abbey prep school program to junior college level and later the four-year college – before long, a university. We built new facilities to house college women and provide meals for coed students. Right around this time, the Sisters joined the Congregation of St. Scholastica. This was all new, and with our house so geographically distant from other Benedictine communities – well, we tootled along as usual, making decisions as we were accustomed to – the council said, so Mother said and things happened. Thus it was that one day, Sister Carmen was on the phone with Mother Mary Frances (congregation president). She could hear the sound of construction in the background and asked what was going on. When Sister Carmen replied, “That’s the new dorm going up.” “Oh, my dear, now that you are in the congregation, our council is supposed to review your plans so we know you won’t go into debt.” (Sometimes it’s just seems better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.)
And the “rest of the story” ??? Most of us in this room are the “rest of the story” …years of decisions, chapel renovations and praying in the parlor, spreading to unused space than down-sizing, planning and building and moving, welcoming candidates and saying good-byes; jubilees and funerals, galas and retreats … the list goes on. And, here we are 48, 212 days after those four adventurous souls (remember one that we call foundress didn’t come until June). We live assured, that with every venture we consider, the words of Paul in the second reading are our firm foundation: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” If God is in this, if this is God’s will, if this is the voice of God from the cloud, a rainbow of blessings will be there for us. And we can say with Peter: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
~Reflection by S. Roberta Bailey, OSB, Prioress