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Key West: Episcopal Church

Key West: The Old and the New


The desire for religious worship, which is a dominant trait of the English speaking people, manifested itself in the earliest days of the settlement of Key West, and the people gathered together in the old court house in Jackson Square and held non-denominational services. Occasionally, when some clergyman would be transiently on the island. his services would be engaged and the islanders worshipped God with no thought of the denomination of the pastor.

On the 7th of March, 1831, the first movement was made to have a clergyman regularly domiciled at Key West. A meeting of th e town council was held on that day and a motion made by Mr. William A. Whitehead, requesting the council to call a meeting of the citizens of Key West for this purpose. In pursuance thereof a meeting was held on the 9th day of March, and Judge James Webb of the United States court presided. A committee of six was appointed, consisting of Hons. James Webb, David Coffin Pinkham, judge of the county court of Monroe county, William A. Whitehead, collector of customs of the port of Key West, Col. Lachland M. Stone, United States marshal for the Southern District of Florida, Dr. Benjamin B. Strobel, surgeon of the army post, Dr. Henry S. Waterhouse, postmaster of Key West, to ascertain as far as practicable how much could be raised by subscription for the support of a minister, and the number of children who would attend the school to be established by him, and to communicate with the bishop of the Episcopal church of New York, requesting him to procure and send a clergyman here. In their letter they express proper consideration for the comfort of the clergyman, and say: "The minister would not be required in any year, that he should stay a greater portion of the months of August and September than would be entirely agreeable to himself."

On October 13, 1831, another public meeting was held and the committee reported that they had communicated with the Rt. Rev. Benjamin T. Onderdonk, Protestant Episcopal Bishop of New York, and although the letter appeared in a religious magazine published by the Episcopal church in New York, no person had been appointed, nor had they received any reply from the bishop. The committee recommended that their efforts having failed of response from the Episcopal bishop, that they invite a clergyman of some other denomination.

Key West was unfortunate in its selection of a bishop to whom to apply for a pastor, as Bishop Onderdonk on the 3rd of January, 1845, after a sensational trial, was "suspended from all exercise of his episcopal and ministerial functions."


The Episcopal church was the pioneer religiou's organization in Key West, and the entire population who desired a church to be established here, united for the purpose of public devotion under the name of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and many united with it who had not previously been of that faith.

Rev. Sanson K. Brunot, of Pittsburgh, Pa., the first clergyman to hold services in Key West, arrived here December 23, 1832. He came with letters of introduction from the Rt. Rev. Benjamin T. Onderdonk, bishop of New York, and Mr. S. J. Whitehead of New Jersey. He was only 24 years old and had not been long in the ministry. He accepted the call largely on account of his ill health, many of his family having died of consumption, and he thought thus to avoid becoming a victim to that disease. He was warmly welcomed on the island and became the guest of Mr. William A. Whitehead. During his stay the parish was organized, and an act of association was drawn up and a charter obtained from the territorial council on February 4, 1833. The official title of the organization was "The Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of St. Paul's Church, Key West. "

On Christmas day, 1832, was beard for the first time on the island, the beautiful service of the Episcopal church, by a regularly ordained priest.

After the morning service the following named persons were enrolled in the first Episcopal congregation: Mr. James Webb, Mr. William A. Whitehead, Mr. David C. Pinkham, Mr FieldA. Browne, Mr. Thomas Eastin, Mr. Alexander Patterson, ;yr. A. H. Day, Mr. John W. Simonton, Mr. Adam Gordon, Mr. William H. Shaw, Mr. J. R. Western, Mr. William H. Wall, Mr. Theodore Owens, Mr. Eugene Trenor, Mr. L. A. Edmonston, Mr. Henry K. Newcomb Mr. Francis D. Newcomb, Mr. Henry S. Waterhouse, Mr.' Amos C. Tift, Mr. E Van Evour, Mr. John Whitehead, Mr. Pardon C. Greene, Mr: Oliver O'Hara, Mr. George E. Weaver, Mr. Philip J. Fontane

Mr. John J. Sands, Mr. Stephen R. Mallory, Mr. Francis B. Watlington, Mr Charles M. Wells and Mr. John P. Baldwin. .

At the first election of wardens and vestrymen held April 5, 1833, Mr. James Webb and Colonel Oliver O'Hara were elected wardens, and Messrs. Fielding A. Browne Pardon C. Greene, Alexander Patterson, David Coffin Pinkham and William A. Whitehead were elected vestrymen.

Mr. Brunot's health soon began to fail and after officiating Only a few times, frequent hemorrhages put a stop to further public services. Feeling that his end was approaching and desiring to pass his last days in his old home, he left Key West in May, 1833, and died soon after his arrival in Pittsburgh.

Before leaving g he advised the vestrymen to apply to the Missionary Society of New York for aid. In July, 1833, the vestrymen adopted Mr. Brunot Is suggestion, and the Missionary Society appointed Rev. Alva Bennett of Troy, N. Y., and contrib- uted $200.00 a year towards his salary, to which the parish added $500.00 a year. Mr. Bennett arrived in Key West in October, 1834, and remained until April, 1835.

On November 16, 1834, during Mr. Bennett's pastorate, the holy communion was first celebrated in Key West, in the court house, in Jackson Square, where services were held.

Mr. Bennett was succeeded by Rev. Robert Dyce who was also appointed by the Board of Missions and arrived in Key West in September, 1836. In 1837 Mr. Dyce made a tour of the country to solicit funds for the church and succeeded in raising $3,000,00. 38, Mrs. John William Charles Fleemon the 5th of May, 18 ing, wife of one of the original, proprietors, gave to the vestry of St. Paul's church a tract of land having a frontage Of two hundred feet on the southeast side of Eaton street, from Duval to Bahama street, and extending on Duval and Bahama streets two hundred feet. "the lot to be used for church purposes and the pews in the church to be free."

On the 10th of July, 1838, the vestry voted to erect a church A building to be constructed of the native coral rock. It was to be forty-six feet long, thirty-six feet wide and twenty-two feet high on the inside, and to contain thirty-six pews and a gallery at one end.

The vestry went to work with a will, and by December 23d of the same year four hundred and fifty pieces of the native coral rock had been quarried and placed on the grounds. On the 3d of March the church was so far completed that the pews were sold at auction. The church cost $6,500.00.

On February 14, 1839, Mr. Dyce resigned charge of the parish and was succeeded by Rev. A. E. Ford. Mr. Ford left in 1842 and was succeeded by Rev. J. H. Hanson, who remained in charge until May, 1845, when he resigned. During this time the work on the church was nearly completed.

In October, 1846, the Rev. C. C. Adams was called and appointed missionary by the Domestic Board of Missions. Mr. Adams started for Key West via Savannah and St. Augustine. Before leaving St. Augustine he learned that the church had been blown down by the hurricane of October, 1846, and at the sugges- tion of the provincial bishop, Of Georgia he came to Key West "to ascertain the character of the parish and if he found it as being unworthy an effort to rebuild, to so report to him, and abandon it, otherwise, to go abroad and beg for funds to re- build." After arriving at Key West Mr. Adams decided on the latter course, but first received assurances from the vestry that the new church should be forever free. He left Key West January 11, 1847, having assumed charge on that date.

He returned the following December with about $3,300.00. A frame church was then erected and the first service was held in it on July 30, 1848. The church was consecrated January 4, 1851, by the Rt. Rev. C. E. Gadsden, Bishop of South Carolina.

Four pews at the back of the church were set apart for the use of negroes, both free and slave, who were members of the Episcopal church. The practice prevailed until in 1888, when a negro Episcopal church, St. Peters', was erected, since which time they have attended that church, except a few of the old negroes who would not sever their relations with the church of their youth. At the celebration of holy communion they wait with old time respect for the white people to commune, and then go reverently to partake of the sacrament.

On January 5, 18549 the parish declared itself self-supporting and severed its connection with the Missionary Society. On April 1, 1855, the Rev. Mr. Adams resigned.

In December, 1856, E. 0. Herrick was made rector, which position he occupied until he resigned in January, 1870, to accept an appointment as chaplain in the United States army. He was, for many years stationed at Fortress Monroe, Where he was rector of the Church of the Centurian on the military post at that station. He died at Watertown, N. Y., October 1, 1907.

In December, 1857, during Mr. Herrick's pastorate the story was built at a cost of $4,500.00. In 1860 the present rec church was enlarged at a cost of about $4,000.00.

The following are the names of the succeeding rectors and dates of services: Rev. Wm. T. Saunders, from July, 1870, to June, 1872. Rev. J. S. J. Higgs, incumbent of the parish of San Salvador, from December, 1872, to the latter part of January, 1873.

During the winter of 1873 the Rev. Charles A. Gilbert visited Key West and held services.

Rev. John Reuther, from March, 1873 to 1874. Rev. J. L. Steele, from 1874 to October 13, 1878, when he fell a victim to yellow fever. Rev. J. B. Baez, a Cuban resident of Key West, who had been ordained a minister, held services until the appointment of a new rector. Rev. Charles A. Gilbert, who had visited Key West in 1873, was called, and was in charge of the parish until November 8, 1880, when he, too, fell a victim to yellow fever. Rev. Charles Stewart, from November, 1880, to May, 1881, when he resigned. Rev. Chas. F. D. Lyne, from December 4. 1881, to February 13, 1886, when he died after a life of long and useful service. Rev. J. D. Baez again filled the pulpit from February to June, 1886. Rev. John B. Linn, from July, 1886, to 1890. Rev. Gilbert Higgs, from 1890 to June, 1903. Mr. Higgs shares with Mr. Herrick the distinction of the greatest length of service of the pastors of St. Paul's Church; each having served faithfully for thirteen years. Mr. Higgs married Miss Clara Herttell, of Key West, and died in Atlanta, Ga., the 7th of September, 1911, and his remains were brought to Key West for burial. Funeral services were held in the parish school house on the church lot September 11, 1911, the burial service being conducted by Rev. Charles T. Stout and Rev. A. R. E. Roe.

Mr. Higgs was born in St. George, Bermuda. He was a man of great energy and fine artistic taste, and found time from his clerical duties to lay off the church grounds in an ornamental garden, which during his pastorate was one of the show places of the city.

After Mr. Higgs' resignation the parish was without a priest until June, 1904, when the Rev. James J. Cameron came to Key West and remained until June, 1905.

Rev. Samuel Duncan Day was here from June to August,1905 Rev. B. F. Brown, from June, 1906, to August, 1906. Rev. John F. Porter, during September and October, 1906.

On the first Sunday in December, 1906, the Rev. Charles T. Stout took charge of the parish and is the present pastor.

The first Sunday school was organized November, 1832, and in January, 1833, there were between fifty and sixty children in attendance.

In 1851 a Ladies' Missionary Society was formed in the parish. Its officers were: Mrs. J. Y. Porter, president; Mrs. S. J. Douglass, secretary; Mrs. Joseph B. Browne, treasurer; Mrs. Kells and Miss Lightbourne, directresses.

In 1847 a frame church was erected about midway of the block fronting on Eaton street, which was destroyed in the great fire of 1886. In the same year another frame building of like dimensions was erected and furnished with a set of chimes, which would have done credit to a much wealthier congregation. At that time they were the only chimes in the State. They were paid for by private subscriptions-several of the large bells being presented by individual members. Among those who presented bells were Mr. Win. Curry and Mr. Horatio Crain. The church was liberally supplied with handsome memorial windows and tablets.

On October 11, 1909, the sixty-third anniversary of the hurricane of 1846 (which destroyed the stone church), this church was destroyed by a hurricane. All the bells of the chimes except the smallest were saved, together with several of the handsome memorial tablets, which will be restored when the new church is erected.

A parish meeting was held on March 6, 1911, to devise ways and means for rebuilding St. Paul's church and a committee appointed, consisting of Hon. Geo. W. Allen, Hon. W. Hunt Harris, Hon. Joseph N. Fogarty and Mr. Frank H. Ladd, Mrs. Joseph Y. Porter, Mrs. J. W. Allen, Mrs. George L. Lowe and Miss Etta Patterson. Funds have been raised, plans accepted and work on the new church will begin in 1912.

St. Paul's church has seven hundred baptised persons on its rolls and three hundred communicants. Its Sunday school has two hundred scholars.


On the 20th of December, 1875, a number of distinguished Cubans, among whom were Hon. Carlos M. de Cespedes, Alejandro Rodriguez, afterwards mayor of Havana, and General of the Rural Guards in Cuba, Messrs. Teodoro Perez, Joaquin Leon, Juan B. Baez and others, met in St. Paul's church for the purpose of organizing an Episcopal church in which the services would be held in Spanish, and a petition to that effect was submitted to Rt. Rev. John F. Young, Bishop of Florida, and on the first of January, 1876, Mr. Juan B. Baez was authorized by the bishop to act as lay reader for the new congregation.

On March 20, 1877, he was ordained deacon by Bishop Young, and on March 9, 1879, was regularly ordained priest by Rt. Rev. Benjamin Whipple, Bishop of Minnesota.

The new church, called St. John's Episcopal Church, began with about two hundred members and continued its work under Rev. Baez's pastorate until a short time before his death. Owing to his previous ill health, the congregation gradually fell off, and with his death no further services were held, and the church, as an organization came to an end.


As early as 1892 the apparent need of an Episcopal church, more accessible to the members of that denomination residing in the vicinity of Division street, impressed the Rev. Gilbert Biggs, and he tried to meet the necessity by holding services at the residence of Mr. Clement Knowles, Sr., as often as was compatible with his duties as rector of St. Paul's. This he continued for a year and a half, assisted by Mr. James M. Jones as lay reader, and by other members of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew.

The first Sunday school was opened in Russell Hall school house on June 23, 1895, with twelve scholars. Dr. Higgs was superintendent; Mr. James N1. Jones, assistant superintendent; Dr. William J. Bartlum, secretary, and Mr. St. Clair Crain, treasurer; Mrs. Edward B. Rawson, librarian, and Mrs. Benjamin Tynes, organist. Mrs. Rawson and Mrs. Susan Folker were the first teachers of the new Sunday school. The organ used was loaned by Mrs. G. Bowne Patterson.

On August 13, 1895, the Missionary District of Southern Florida purchased from Mr. Benjamin Tynes a lot on the corner of Virginia and Grinnell streets, fifty by one hundred feet, the contract price of which was fifteen hundred dollars. The term of payment were twenty-five dollars cash and five dollars a month, without interest. By special effort the entire indebtedness was paid by Easter, 1903, Mr. Tynes generously deducting one hundred dollars from the original purchase price. There was a small building on the lot, which was fitted up and used for Sunday school and church services. Bishop Gray made his first visit to the new church February 2, 1896. The sacrament of confirmation was first administered on April 28, 1897, to a class of eight.

On March 19, 1900, the cornerstone was laid for a church, donated by Mrs. Joseph Y. Porter, as a memorial to her father, Mr. William Curry. It was completed in October, 1900, and the first services held by the Rev. Walter C. Cavell, November 4th of that year. As there was an indebtedness on the property for part of the purchase price of the land, the church was not consecrated until February 2, 1904, but services were regularly conducted in the interval.

The name "Holy Innocents" was adopted because of the preponderance of little children in the congregation.

For a time the minister lived in a rented house, but in February, 1904, a lot on Grinnel street was purchased from the Monroe county school board, f I or eight hundred dollars, and a vicarage erected which was completed July 15th of that year, when the pastor and his wife moved into their new home.

The succeeding ministers of Holy Innocents were Rev. William Curtis White, who served for nearly five years; Rev. Arthur Browne Livermore, Rev. Charles F. Sontag, Rev. Arthur T. Cornwall and Rev. A. R. E. Roe, the present priest. The Right Rev. Anson R. Graves held services during the winter and spring of 1910, and the Rev. George Ward officiated for a few months in 1911.

To Judge Livingston W. Bethel belongs great honor and credit for his untiring work for the success of Holy Innocents. Never a service has been held when he was in the city that he was not present, and when pastorless, he officiated as lay reader and kept the congregation together. He has been senior warden ever since the church was first established.


The history of this parish begins about forty years ago Numbers of colored church people had emigrated from the Bahamas, and finding no place of worship of their own, decided to hold services amongst themselves, going from house to house as opportunity offered. On December 14, 1875, a meeting was called and presided over by Bishop John Freeman Young of Florida, and the title of "St. Peter's" adopted as the name of the new parish. A vestry was elected which appointed Dr J. L. Steele the first rector. From this time on the work grew rapidly, and services were held in various rooms and halls, with sacraments at St. Paul's.

After Dr. Steele's death in 1878, matters stood still for a time, but revived with much energy in April, 1887, when Bishop Weed sent as rector Rev. C. D. Mack.

Plans were laid for purchasing land for a church lot, and in December of the next year Father McGill, who had then taken charge, began the erection of a church hall, which building eventually became St. Peter's Church. The entire cost of building, furnishing, and memorials was borne by the members of the church. J. L. Kerr, a colored priest, did faithful work for over fifteen years.

In October, 1909, the church was badly damaged by a hurricane, the restoration costing over five hundred dollars. The next year a second storm entirely destroyed the church, and from the ruins has been erected a fair sized hall, which is used for devotional purposes.

Funds are being raised to replace the church by a substantial concrete building. The membership is one of the largest in the city, the communicants numbering over five hundred, with three hundred Sunday school children, besides various guilds, etc.

In 1908 Rev. A. R. E. Roe became rector of St. Peter's, but resigned in the fall of 1911 to accept a call as priest of Holy Innocents.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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