STEEPED IN HISTORYBY CATHERINE ENNS GRIGAS
It was the faith of an Irish immigrant fisherman and the charity of a wealthy Philadelphia senator that helped establish the first Catholic church in St. Lucie County 100 years ago. But it has been hope that has brought St. Anastasia Parish from its humble beginnings in the 20th century to a thriving spiritual force in the Treasure Coast community in the 21st century.
Perhaps the best symbol of that cross-generation connection is Kevin Hoeffner, principal of St. Anastasia School. His great-grandfather, Anton P. Hoeffner, helped build the first St. Anastasia School. His mother and father, Barbara and Tom Hoeffner, were married in the church. He and his siblings all attended St. Anastasia School, and now his three children go there.
The historic bell ceremoniously rung at eighth-grade graduation was donated 100 years ago by Hoeffner’s great-grandfather, whose name is inscribed on it. The bell hung in the tower of the original church and school on Orange Avenue. Ironically, Hoeffner says that as principal he has had to put some limits on overly enthusiastic ringing of that bell.
CENTURY OF GROWTH
St. Anastasia Parish is the second oldest in the Diocese of Palm Beach. Just a dozen families attended the church when it was established in 1910. Now there are 1,350 families.
“Over the years, parishioners, pastors, priests and nuns have witnessed prosperity, wars, economic growth, real estate booms and busts and a myriad of changes in our community,” says the Rev. Richard George.
The parish plans a number of events this year to celebrate its centennial, leading up to an anniversary Mass on Dec. 11.
At the turn of the 20th century, Catholics weren’t common in Fort Pierce, although the faith came to the area first with the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who established Santa Lucia in 1567.
Mission priests sent from more populated parts of Florida traveled here by horseback or boat to celebrate Mass in the Fort Pierce meeting hall. One early circuit-riding priest, the Rev. P.J. Bresnahan, recalled that the meals the locals made for him were simple pioneer fare. “I get something they call hominy in the morning, rice at dinner, and grits at night,” he wrote, adding that in more abundant times he feasted on “fried chicken, roast, wild duck and turkey.”
By the mid-1890s, the Methodists, Episcopalians and Baptists had built churches in Fort Pierce. The congregations of Mount Olive Baptist Church and St. Paul A.M.E. Church were worshipping in their own churches by the early 1900s. But it wasn’t until Thomas J. O’Brien, who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland, came to Fort Pierce to help place telegraph lines that the idea of a Catholic church began to take shape.
THE FIRST CHURCH
According to Anne Sinnott, who has researched the history of St. Anastasia, O’Brien worked as a store clerk at a general store owned by Captain Benjamin and Annie Hogg. When the Hoggs sold the store to P.P. Cobb, O’Brien went into the wholesale fishing business with Ransom Ricou.
O’Brien met and married Courtney Raulerson, the daughter of a prominent local cattleman, and the two opened their home to the missionary priests for Masses, baptisms and weddings. The first documented Mass was held in 1903 at their house west of 10th Street and south of Orange Avenue.
The funds for building a church got a considerable boost from Sen. James P. McNichol, a wealthy Philadelphian who spent winters in St. Lucie Village. McNichol bought a large block of property at Orange Avenue east of 10th Street so that a church, school and rectory could be built. The first church, a simple wood-frame structure that seated 125, was built in 1908. It was named St. Anastasia in honor of McNichol’s wife, Anastasia Agnes.
But it wasn’t until the Rev. Gabriel Ruppert arrived and took up residence on Dec. 4, 1910, that St. Anastasia officially became a parish. In the midst of anti-Catholic fervor ignited by Florida Gov. Sidney Johnston Catts, who was elected in 1911 on a racist and anti-Catholic platform, Ruppert began orchestrating the construction of Fort Pierce’s first Catholic school. It was completed in 1914. Father Ruppert built a solid, fireproof building of two stories and a basement that still stands today — vacant and long abandoned but owned by the city of Fort Pierce — on Orange Avenue.
Interestingly, the school operated as a public school, rent-free, based on an agreement with the St. Lucie County School Board, from 1919 to 1926. The school also provided temporary housing for Catholic families who had recently moved to the area.
In 1926, the first Dominican sisters arrived from Adrian, Mich., to teach and operate the school, finally bringing formal Catholic education to the area. The three sisters, who wore the long, white dresses and scapulars and prominent black veils of their order, created a stir among local folks who had never seen nuns before.
“We soon became aware that we were the first ‘nuns’ ever to come to Fort Pierce,” wrote Sister Jane Francis, OP, in 1926. “A day or so after we arrived, Sister Sabina and I were walking down the street when a huckster driving his horse and cart spied us, garbed as we were in our white habits and black veils. This shock at the sight of us knew no bounds. He let go the reins, raised his arms to the sky, and exclaimed: ‘Glory be to God, what are them?’ ”
While the school building and the convent that adjoined it were solidly built, the church itself was more fragile. By the 1920s, it was infested with termites and had to be torn down. The new church, a larger wooden building closer to Orange Avenue, was dedicated on Christmas Eve in 1924.
Some of its design elements reflected the modest means of the parishioners. Pews flanked only the main aisle while latecomers had to sit on hard benches. But there were also ornate Old World touches. Local families contributed funds for the intricate stained glass windows. Churchgoers knelt to receive Communion at the marble altar rail. The ceiling was adorned with elaborate paintings of clouds and cherubs, and a massive pipe organ led the faithful in song.
The surnames of the early parishioners show the variety of heritages that worshipped at St. Anastasia. Irish, French, Italian and German names were on those first rolls. An African-American, Nathan Washington, converted and was baptized in 1916.
In 1926, a young German priest, the Rev. Michael Beerhalter, drawn to the area because members of his family had already settled here, came to assist Father Gabriel. Beerhalter became pastor when Father Gabriel retired in 1929.
Louis Forget was the first baby baptized by Beerhalter, who later became Monsignor Beerhalter. Beerhalter kept a watchful eye on Forget when he attended St. Anastasia School.
“The nuns taught two grades at a time,” Forget recalls. “There were only six in my class. There weren’t uniforms because no one could afford any in those days. The student body was in charge of cleaning out the school. But we had everything you needed as far as classes went — biology, chemistry, Latin. It was a complete program.”
Beerhalter took a personal interest in every student’s progress. Until his retirement in 1972, he would come to each classroom and go over students’ grades as he read their report cards. “He would read out the grades and you made sure you didn’t have a bad one — especially in Conduct,” he recalls.
Forget says that when Beerhalter became pastor the country was facing the Great Depression and he had inherited a great deal of debt. “It was quite a job to get everything paid off,” says Forget. “But monsignor was a kind of financial wizard.”
Jeannie Guettler Lattner was one of a family of eight girls and five boys who attended St. Anastasia School and Church. Her sister, Dorothy, became an Adrian Dominican nun. Her uncle, George Guettler, donated the property where the current St. Anastasia Parish is located on South 33rd Street.
She remembers Beerhalter as a family friend who visited her home often. “He would bring candy for us and he would throw it up in the air and all of us would scramble for it,” she says. “I loved to listen to his German accent. You could always tell when he was in the school because you could smell his cigar. He was a great guy. He always had a twinkle in his eye and I certainly miss him.”
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
For most of those early years, St. Anastasia Parish was a tightly knit community. Many of the parishioners were related. “It seemed like everybody was related to us,” Lattner says. “We had six in our class and three would be related to me. We would all run around together. It was an extended family and every time there was any event — a wedding or a funeral — everyone went.”
That feeling of community is one of the fond memories of Dorothy Clemenzi Scotto. Her father, a stonemason from Italy, brought the family to Florida in 1925. She and all five of her siblings attended St. Anastasia School, as did her four children. Her son, Dominick, teaches at John Carroll High School. “In those days, the church and school were our whole community,” she says.
“The nuns were just wonderful and Monsignor Beer-halter loved children. When we went to Mass we all wore hats or veils. It was mandatory for a woman to cover her head in church. After Mass, we would all gather outside in that big yard and talk, and catch up with friends. You knew everyone.”
One of her memories was attending midnight Mass on a night when the power went out. “We just had to sit there and wait for the power to come back on,” she says.
Bill Wolf was baptized at the church in 1931. He became an usher when he was 16 and has been one ever since. “Many of the men went off to World War II and so they had us high school boys do much of the ushering,” he says. He fondly remembers the old church and the large yard where the congregation gathered afterward to visit. “It was such a beautiful church,” he says.
But termites were attracted to that wooden church, too. It was replaced by a new building dedicated in 1975 on the South 33rd Street property donated by parishioner George Guettler. The original stained glass windows and some statuary were moved from the old church.
St. Anastasia School expanded, too. A new elementary school and convent were dedicated in 1960. John Carroll High School is on an adjacent piece of property.
Today, the convent is a $3 million media center. Only one nun, Sister Helen Dom Pierre, still teaches at St. Anastasia. She is the last representative of an order that had a profound influence on the education of thousands of area students.
CELEBRATING THE CENTENNIAL
Events celebrating St. Anastasia’s 100th anniversary include a cowboy-themed dinner and dance on Saturday, April 17; a youth rally on Saturday, Sept. 24; the Second Annual Golf Tournament, on Saturday, Nov. 6; and the Centennial Anniversary Mass celebrated by Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito on Saturday, Dec. 11, followed by a special reception. For more information, call 772.461.2233.
CHURCH RAN SCHOOL FOR BLACK STUDENTS
African-Americans have been members of St. Anastasia Parish since 1916, when the church documented the conversion and baptism of Nathan Washington, its first African-American parishioner. However, Jim Crow laws came into play in both worship and education.
The old St. Anastasia Church had two benches designated for “Colored Only.” Frances Brown, who was prominent in the African-American community and owned and operated a pharmacy, was a devout Catholic. “It’s said that he was once asked if it bothered him that he had to sit there,” says Anne Sinnott, who has researched the church’s history. “He just smiled and said he always knew he had a reserved seat.”
Like public schools, private schools were segregated. To provide a Catholic education for the area’s African-American students, a benefactor — possibly a nun, according to Sinnott — purchased an old theater building on Eighth Street and converted it into a school.
Blessed Martin School was established in 1940. Two Dominican nuns from the Adrian, Mich., order were assigned to teach students through the eighth grade. African-Americans, mostly middle class, attended the school for a nominal tuition. Religious instruction was provided, but students weren’t required to be Catholic.
Among those who attended Blessed Martin was Florida Highwayman artist James Gibson.
In 1962, Monsignor Michael Beerhalter, spurred by his belief that schools should be fully integrated, closed the school and opened St. Anastasia School to African-American students.
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