Consecutive Days Riding: 158 Consecutive Days Blogging: 142
Today’s Mileage: 3 Total Trip Mileage: 1072
As I ride the bike this morning I am thinking about the pilgrimage site we will visit today: St. Photios National Greek Shrine and Orthodox Chapel. I’m assuming that many of my readers had the same reaction that I did when I first came across this site on the sunny shores of eastern Florida: How did a Greek Orthodox Shrine find its way to Florida? I had become familiar with the Spanish history of this area, something we will explore more fully tomorrow. The Greek presence was a surprise. Studying the history of the St. Augustine area I found my answers and I discovered a story the likes of which have long inspired people with the message of hope, persistence and tenacity of the human spiritual. St. Augustine represents the longest continuously occupied city in North America with the oldest port. There were other settlements up and down the Florida coast, both French and Spanish, however this was the one that “stuck it out.” The site has gone through numerous changes of flags and ownership. I have alluded in an earlier posting to a sad example of religious strife and killing, I will reserve that discussion for the days to come for it portrays what some people would call the “ugly” side of religious thought and dogma. Back to the question of the Greeks!
It is clear that by the 1700s North America had stoked the fire and dreams of freedom and land ownership in many poor, impoverished and subjugated peoples around the world, particularly in Europe. Not only were the major European powers sprinkling the continent with their settlements but entrepreneurs were exploiting the wilderness for their potential riches.
One such individual was Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish physician who in 1766 undertook to create a settlement called New Smyrna 75 miles on the coast south of St. Augustine. By this time the city had changed hands was now under a British flag. He collected some 1400 people from Greece, Italy and the island of Minorca who agreed to sign on as indentured servants. They would raise sugarcane, indigo and cotton for 7-8 years to earn a plot of acreage of their own. However, the settlement was greeted from its inception with hardship including disease and starvation. According to several reports matters were made worse by Dr. Turnbull harsh leadership. After 10 years little success had been achieve and the settlers felt more like slaves than servants.
The settlement was eventually abandoned with the residents walking the shoreline all the way to St. Augustine. At the city gates the 300 survivors of the settlement asked the British governor for protection. The governor repealed their indentured status and granted them sanctuary within the city. They inhabited the Avero House a location that the Greek community has come to call their “Plymouth Rock.” These new citizens prospered as shop owners and citizens. Their offspring became the founders of some of the most venerated families of present day St. Augustine. Significant among that groups were the first “colony” of Greeks in the New World. Their presence in the history of the city answers our question about the existence of the Greek Orthodox shrine.
The shrine and chapel of Saint Photios are a testament the importance, although often overlooked, role that Greeks played in the developing drama of North America as laborers and business owners in city large and small. The chapel is filled with icons (religious paintings) created in the traditional Byzantine style which expresses visually the theology of the Greek Orthodox Church. One of the ceiling domes is adorned with a painting “the Hospitality of Abraham.” The central dome hold the image of “Christ the Pantocrator (the all-embracing), and the third dome depicts the Archangel Michael.
One of the wall frescos depicts St. Photios (the Patriarch of Constantinople) teaching his young nephews, later known as St. Cyril and St. Methodios, before he sent them off as missionaries who are credited with spreading Christianity to the Slavic peoples.
This story of the colony of New Smyrna is one that is repeated innumerable times across North America as waves of people followed the promises of the new world and struggled to establish a foothold in America. I came to recognize this as a youth on the windswept plains of the Dakotas. There was Tabor, with its quaint Czechoslovakian homes, Ukrainian Orthodox churches standing alone on the prairie servicing far flung farmhouses and any number of small farming communities with German Catholics and Norwegian Lutherans clustered about their church.
Some foots holds worked out and survived harsh climates, native attacks, cycles of starvation and poor planning. Others like New Smyrna failed, but the people moved on to established settlements. Some expeditions (like Jamestown) not only failed but disappeared leaving an abandoned site and no trace of the inhabitants. Stories of these immigrants fill our history books with their tragedy, mysteries and success at overcoming adversity in the pursuit of prosperity, freedom, and the promise of land.
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