A Parish of Rich Beginnings
Look out the front door of the rectory at the woods across St. Augustine Road. Spread the woods around you and imagine away the roads and the buildings, and you get a feel for Mandarin 150 years ago. In the years between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the tiny rural community of Mandarin was accessible only by navigating the St. Johns River and then traveling three miles overland, or by horse or foot or cart over rutted wagon trails; no carriage could pass through the woods.
Early Mandarin had no church of its own. However, it was part of a larger Catholic community, a 400-square-mile area that came to be known as the Mandarin Mission. In those years between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Mandarin was one of the stops on the mission circuit, visited by priests from St. Augustine once or twice a year. After the U.S. purchased Florida from Spain in 1819, those visits became even less frequent. The visiting priests said Mass in private homes. In 1850, however, Bishop Augustine Verot of St. Augustine built a small chapel for the visiting priests in Mandarin.
The first "St. Joseph's" was built in 1858 on land donated by George Hartley, a Jacksonville pioneer who later perished in the Civil War. Located near the present "Old Church," it measured 60 x 26 feet. It was built of unplaned pine in the shape of a cross. Two small rooms behind the altar served as the sacristy and the rectory.
In 1860, Bishop Verot sent Father John Chambon to St. Joseph's as its first resident pastor. He had recruited Father Chambon and other priests from France several years earlier, given them a crash course in English, and brought them to St. Augustine. Father Chambon dedicated St. Joseph's on February 22, 1860, and served as pastor during the early years of the Civil War. The first collection was $6.65, and later collections averaged only 58 cents.
Father Chambon's efforts extended beyond St. Joseph's; he's been called the founder of the Mandarin Mission. From his headquarters at St. Joseph's, he traveled to the mission posts and called on parishioners by foot and on horseback, braving snakes and other hazards. A hundred years of infrequent priestly visits, coupled with the constant efforts of Protestant ministers, had taken a toll, and much of the Catholic population had grown indifferent to its faith. Despite his imperfect English, Father Chambon worked tirelessly to revive Catholicism. His records show that he performed 151 Baptisms. St. Joseph's still has his records, written in Latin. They are the oldest existing Baptismal records in the county.
Father Chambon moved north to Jacksonville in 1863 and, for health reasons, to Canada in 1866. St. Joseph's, without a resident pastor, once again became a mission church.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, Bishop Verot recruited the Sisters of St. Joseph from his native town of Le Puy, France, to establish schools throughout Florida. Recruited to teach newly emancipated blacks, the sisters' mission had expanded to include all children by the time they arrived in Mandarin. Sister Mary Julia Roussel, an educated Frenchwoman, and Sister Mary Bernard, an Irishwoman, arrived at St. Joseph's in 1868, beginning a century of education and charitable service in the Mandarin area. The two sisters made the 13-hour journey from St. Augustine on February 3rd, traveling 27 miles by oxcart over the rough terrain. They opened school the next day in the vacant church. Enrollment grew from 30 after two weeks to 80 three months later. However, the nuns boarded over a mile away and had to walk back and forth six times a day through thick, wet undergrowth, once getting lost in the woods and wandering about until late at night. Sister Julia took ill several months later, and the sisters returned to St. Augustine in May, 1868.
They left behind them a two-story, 80- x 30-foot shack, begun as a convent. The shack was so frail that when it was two years old a storm nearly blew it down, leaving it leaning precariously to the north. Another storm blew through Mandarin a month later, fortunately from the north, and blew it upright again. It was immediately braced up. Father Stephen Langlade, the next resident pastor, discovered the building upon his arrival in 1872 and made it habitable. He built partitions, providing several school rooms on the first floor, an outside staircase, and sleeping quarters on the second floor. The sisters returned, with reinforcements, in February, 1873, and immediately set up school in the "new" building.
In December, 1877, two months after a yellow fever epidemic had swept through Jacksonville and the surrounding areas, the Bishop sent Father Henry Clavreul to St. Joseph's. He remained for 25 years. At his arrival, there were about 600 Catholics in the Mandarin Mission; Father Clavreul had a number of new churches built throughout the Mission to ease the hardships of traveling to church on Sundays. A noted historian, Father Clavreul contributed much to St. Joseph's, beginning the construction that marked the parish's growth into the twentieth century.
Because the first church had fallen into disrepair and grown too small to accommodate Sunday masses, Father Clavreul began construction of a new church, which we now call the "Old Church." The church was under construction for over 20 years. It was actually finished by the next pastor, Father James Veale, who added a belfry and dedicated the church in 1912. The church measured 80 x 26 feet, with clapboard siding, a pine floor, pine pews and a simple altar. Father Michael Fennel purchased the present altar during the 1920's for $1,100, and Father George Rockett began additional renovations during the 1930's, including a new sanctuary floor of oak inlaid with dark walnut.
Father Veale built a rectory next door to the church, perhaps incorporating some of the timbers from the first church. The rectory, with modifications, was used by all subsequent pastors. Even our present pastor, Father Dan Cody, resided there until construction of a new rectory in 1985.
A Growing Community of Faith
In the mid-1950's, St. Joseph's was a small parish of 120 families serving the surrounding rural community. Its annual income, including collections, was $10,000. Parish property included the present Old Church, an adjacent rectory, and a small school building. All were on the south side of Loretto Road, and all had been built in the early years of the century. Parish funds and the parishioners' annual bazaar supported the school, so parents of parochial school children paid no tuition.
St. Joseph's began to take on its present-day appearance in 1955, upon completion of a new four-classroom brick school building across Loretto Road. The parish began to charge tuition for the first time: $5.00 per student, according to an old appraisal. At this time, the parish school had 200 students, but a substantial number came from the nearby St. Joseph's Academy, a boarding school separately run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, with which the parish shared classrooms. In 1970, after the Academy had closed, the parish school had 63 pupils, with 3 teachers teaching grades one through six.
In 1971, the Buckman Bridge was completed, linking Mandarin to Orange Park. Mandarin became a desirable residential community, and it began to grow. Parish size reflected Mandarin's increasing popularity, growing to 260 families by 1974 and 350 by 1977. The parish school reflected the growth as well, increasing to more than 250 students by 1978. Father Thomas Kelly added a four-classroom metal building in 1973 and completed the gymnasium/parish center in 1976. In 1974, the old parish school was moved across Loretto Road and eventually put to use as the library/kindergarten room.
In 1977, St. Joseph's closed the Old Church, which had become too small, and began to hold Masses in the new gymnasium. In April, 1980, Father Kelly completed a new church, which became known as the Main Church. Built of coquina, oak, and cedar, materials native to north Florida, it was planned to accommodate 700 to 800 families.
On May 3, 1982, Father Dan Cody, the present pastor, arrived at St. Joseph's. He left behind a small parish with a new rectory and a bank balance in excess of $150,000. At St. Joseph's, he found 637 families, a run-down rectory ("It was a shack!"), a bank balance under $1,000, and debt in excess of $770,000. "I began to see that it was more of a risk of faith than I had planned," he notes. Now, looking back over the last dozen years, when St. Joseph's almost quadrupled in size, he reflects, "I believe that God sent me here." And he tells several stories that reflect the hand of God.
In May, 1982, Father Cody moved into the "shack", only to carry on the early traditions of pastoral hardship. "I love to have a banana in the morning. I had no small refrigerator like I have now, and I would leave the banana out. Half the banana was gone in the morning. I realized that I was having the visitor of a rat coming up through the old shack. I have nightmares still over that!"
The Parish Council called an emergency meeting and proceeded with plans for the rectory, purchasing the nine-acre site for $47,000. They discovered an artesian well on the premises, which is still in use for the sprinkling system. The biggest problem was the private "bridge" between the Main Church and the rectory property, since the bridge was over wetlands. "It took us months to get a permit to build," notes Father Cody. "We got a cease-and-desist three times. Finally I called the mayor, and we got it." The new rectory, including apartments for the Bishop, was completed in 1985, and priests and staff moved into the building on July 20th.
Next came the Old Church. Unused, deteriorating, and rapidly becoming an eyesore, the Old Church was nevertheless loved by parishioners, some of whose families had worshipped there for several generations. The parish had no money for renovations, but was reluctant to tear the building down. Then, in 1986, a parishioner who wished to remain anonymous gave Father Cody a check for $10,000 for the Old Church. "How God worked," notes Father Cody, stating that the check motivated parishioners to raise an additional $20,000 to restore the Old Church. The restoration was a labor of love for the many parishioners who participated, some of whom did actual work themselves. The Old Church reopened in 1986 and now has a 9:00 and a 10:15 Mass. The altar rails and the bells, unusual in modern churches, add to its charm.
Next came the school. The Building Committee had just completed plans for the first phase, a long, narrow school building with eight classroom and the administration offices. Shortly after, Father Cody attended a newcomers' meeting where a man abruptly said to him, "I need to talk to you!" Anticipating a complaint, Father Cody scheduled a meeting and later met with Arthur and Ruth Boice, new parishioners from Atlantic Beach. Mr. Boice told Father Cody that his aunt, Mary Lennon, had just died and had by will left $100,000 for a private chapel in memory of her and her sister. Father Cody spoke to them on behalf of St. Joseph's, showing them the school building plans and suggesting that a chapel right on the school grounds would provide a wonderful focal point for a religious education facility. The Boices decided to go with St. Joseph's, and the chapel was built in the center of the eight classrooms. Today, you can see the plaque commemorating Mary A. and Margaret B. Lennon in the chapel. The Boices' timely presence at St. Joseph's was "another marvelous, marvelous working of God," notes Father Cody, adding how often he thinks of them.
The first phase of the education improvements, the eight-classroom building radiating from St. Joseph's Chapel, was completed in 1987. In 1989, the cafeteria/social hall and the two meeting rooms were completed, connected to the existing gym/parish hall by the "gallery." In 1992, the final phase of the school improvements was completed: the two-story learning center on the western side of the campus that houses facilities for arts, science, computer, and music, as well as a nursery and additional classrooms.
Additional improvements include the Food Bank building, completed in 1991, and improvements to the cemetery.
The beautiful New Church was completed and dedicated in 1999, after this article was written. For information and a visual tour of the new church, click on the "New Church" button on the home page.
Parishioners in the vibrant St. Joseph's community step forward when necessary, providing everything from volunteer hours to money to materials. "God has blessed me with the right people in leadership roles," notes Father Cody.
For their assistance with historical research, thanks to Father Philip Gagan, Archivist/Historian for the Diocese of St. Augustine, to Sister Mary Albert Lussier, Archivist at St. Joseph's Convent in St. Augustine, and to Pastor Dan Cody.