"Those Murderous Monks" and Their Mission:
Building an Inclusive Community for all People in Rural Florida, 1886-1960
by Heather R. Parker, Ph.D.
“Good,” “right,” “just,” “community,” “Christian” – these are all subjective terms. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Florida from the Reconstruction era to the mid twentieth century. During this time period a dizzying array of populations peopled this odd state – Among these were the Seminole Indians, The poor white population of Florida then referred to as “Crackers,” African Americans, northern white newcomers or “carpetbaggers,” and finally, there were the American and foreign Catholic nuns, priests and monks who came to establish missions to reach non-Catholic populations as well as to minister to the scattered populations of Catholics who had migrated to Florida. Each group brought with them their own perception of what would constitute “a Good Society” and none saw its idea of the good society reflected in the outlook, beliefs, or practices of the other groups.
In his 2011 study “Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era,” Arthur Remillard asserts that “when articulating these differences, people drew ideological lines between those who they believed were good for society and those they believed were not. Whether redeemers or northerners, Catholics or nativists, each side’s moral vision for society took shape through mutual opposition.” The monks of Saint Leo Abbey in Pasco County, Florida envisioned a good society based on the implementation of their values that would endure despite opposition and, in the words of Remillard, go “beyond individual interests and [serve] a higher good.”
In Pasco County, the juxtaposition of Florida Crackers, white northern migrants – both Protestant and Catholic, African American laborers, nuns, and German Catholic Monks, all within a very small rural community, constituted a unique social environment. Although southern customs related to segregation and the systematic subjugation of African Americans prevailed, the Benedictine monks and nuns quietly asserted their right to live their values by attempting to create a community that recognized the personhood and worth of African Americans.
In 1882 Judge Edmund F. Dunne left Arizona and bought large tracts of land for the purpose of founding a Catholic colony in Pasco County. The center of these communities was to be the town of San Antonio with several villages, including Saint Leo, radiating out from this hub.
Dunne advertised these tracts of land to Catholics all over the United States as well as to Catholics in Europe. He was quite successful in attracting settlers, many of whom came from Germany. As time progressed it became clear that there was a need for German-speaking priests to minister to the largely German population of this settlement. To answer this call, German Benedictine monks secured land just east of San Antonio in Saint Leo, and built an abbey and a school for boys called Saint Leo College, which began accepting students in 1889. The Benedictine Sisters opened Holy Name Academy for girls that same year just up the road in San Antonio.
These Benedictine institutions were not isolated from other Floridians but were established just a few miles west of the town of Dade City, the county seat of the newly formed and very rural Pasco County. The influx of Catholics and foreigners was quite a lot for the entrenched Pasco County white population to assimilate. The two populations couldn’t have been more different from each other.
Florida whites were steadfastly Protestant, patriotic and xenophobic – often to the extreme and they were staunch former confederates. The poor whites, or Crackers were severely under-educated. In fact the entire state of Florida, averse even then to taxation of any kind, had a history of being willfully committed to ignoring the educational needs of its citizens. The 1867 Proceedings of the Educational Association of the State of Florida reported, “Florida has never done anything for the education of her white children. Not one dollar of taxes has ever been levied upon her citizens for the promotion of education…”  Their low level of education was reflected in their simple and often lampooned lifestyle. In the early 1900s Florida Governor Sydney Catts summed up his impression of the Florida Crackers stating that,
…he had been in places where the sound of a railroad whistle had never been heard by voters…that he had slept in the beds used by crackers and bedbugs. That he had ploughed with these country folk and having noticed that they wore no shoes he also went barefoot; and, that he kissed their babies when they were clean, and patted the others.
The mentality and the lifestyle of Florida Crackers contrasted markedly from the monks who were Catholic, German, and highly educated. In an 1886 letter to his superior, Fr. Gerard Pilz, founder of the Saint Leo community, wrote in a rather unchristian manner, that the Crackers, “are stupid, shy but vindictive people; lazy; pale; tallow-looking, leather-skinned. Their eyes are stirring, dead and lusterless. I don’t think they ever comb their hair.” He continues, “It is a good thing for Florida that the Crackers are dying out, for they are a hindrance to all civilization.” While the educational and lifestyle differences between the monks and the local white population were indeed significant, what caused the most friction, however, was the different outlook of the two groups regarding race and the manner in which the local African American population should be treated. Florida whites, whether poor or wealthy were Socialized within and invested in a Race-Based Society dependent upon the systematic and specific subjugation of African Americans, and they were committed to the perpetuation of this system. They shared a fundamental belief in the inherent inferiority of Blacks. By contrast, the Benedictine monks were socialized in a European world of generalized Racism and ethnocentrism where African Americans were lowly, but not inherently and inalterably inferior. There was no commitment to the perpetuation of the system of African American subjugation present in the Post-Reconstruction South.
I must be clear that my intention here is not to assert that there was a drastic difference in the racist beliefs of these two groups. Clearly the monks and other Catholics in Florida held their own deep-seated prejudices against African Americans. Augustine Verot, the French Bishop of Savannah and Administrator Apostolic of Florida devoted his life to helping African Americans and waged philosophical war against those who maintained that blacks were sub-humans with no souls. Yet he described them as “this simple and docile race.” Another priest, well acquainted with the monks at Saint Leo and committed to helping blacks in any way he could, came to Florida in 1904 armed with what he came to believe were unjust northern biases about the racial order in the South. “When I first came to Florida,” he wrote,
I had the idea of many Northerners that the negro was not treated with proper consideration in the South. That idea was erroneous and now I am convinced that the Southern gentleman understands what is best for his colored neighbor and accordingly does treat him justly.
European nuns in Florida too had difficulty overcoming their prejudices and were not always positive in their initial perceptions of black people. One sister wrote that she “already love[d]” Gods “poor little blacks” and that she was “attracted” to them “although they may be very unhandsome.” Another sister wrote,
I must tell you, good Mother, the pain I felt seeing the black people…when I saw all those black faces, where only eyes and teeth show white, I couldn’t look at them; I didn’t go near them; I was afraid of them…and I was anxious to leave those classes; and I asked myself how would I ever teach class; I felt such repugnance it seemed that would be what I would have the most trouble about, then I consoled myself thinking that as yet I didn’t have to begin, and I would have the time to get used to them; and already I fear them less . . .
So the monks, priests, and nuns in Florida were not without their own prejudices. As noted in an 1873 article in The Catholic Mirror, “most Catholics, northern and southern, lay and cleric, absorbed the widespread racism of American society and regarded Afro-Americans as their intellectual and moral inferiors.” But this paper’s assertion is that there was a marked difference between their kind of racism and that espoused by Florida’s established white population.
This difference was in the level of commitment to discriminatory practices based on racist beliefs. While the monks might have held racist beliefs concerning blacks, unlike the Florida whites, they were not committed to acting on these beliefs. On an individual and on a collective basis, monks, priests and nuns helped African Americans in Florida despite opposition to these efforts. Unlike Florida whites, the Monks’ vision of the good society precluded a perpetuation of practices that debased black people and they demonstrated this with their actions.
These Benedictine Monks practiced Benedictine Values as derived from the Rule of St. Benedict written in the 6th Century. Although the Benedictine Order emphasized learning, missionary work, and the arts, their main focus was subjugation to the will of God as demonstrated by service to others. The Benedictine values that most influenced the monks’ commitment to reaching out to African Americans were Community, Respect, Justice, and working for the Common Good.
Just as Florida whites were committed to their values rooted in the maintenance of the racial order at all costs, so the monks were committed to their Benedictine values which they intended to practice at all costs, even if this brought to them unwelcome negative attention and intensified hostility toward them as foreigners. Out of the first 50 monks at the Saint Leo monastery, 41 of them were either born in Germany or were born in America and were of German descent.
In fact, the 1910 U.S. census shows that out of the 26 religious residing at the monastery in that year, only 5 were not German or born to German parents. (See census document below. The outlined portion identifies the birthplace of each member of the Benedictine community as being born in Germany).
In James Horgan’s history of Saint Leo, Pioneer College, he acknowledged the danger the monks courted in calling attention to themselves by reaching out to African Americans.
Saint Leo’s relationship with the surrounding community had its ups and downs. From time to time, this enclave of monks was looked upon with suspicion, for not only were these Benedictines Catholic, but German as well, and their attitudes on racial matters sometimes contravened the accepted practices of the day.
A decade after the establishment of Saint Leo College, in defiance of custom and state segregation law and despite threats from the community, the monks recruited and accepted a student of African descent from Cuba named Rudolph Antorcha. Soon after, in 1908 the monks accepted into their community an African American local boy named George Miller. The reaction of the white community to this is described in Pioneer College,
Some of the local citizens of the Catholic Colony of San Antonio were not supportive of the idea of Saint Leo’s reception of a black brother. Abbot Charles Mohr received what Fr. Damian DuQuesnay describes as ‘a threatening letter’ demanding Miller’s ouster. But the abbot continued to defend him.
These two young black men who came to Saint Leo for educational and religious purposes were much different than the majority of black people the monks began to serve. Most black people living in the areas near Saint Leo at and after the turn of the twentieth century were laborers in the orange groves, in the turpentine camps, and in the lumber industry.
While all of these were low paying and characterized by back-breaking labor, it was the turpentine camps that offered the worst living conditions. And, unfortunately, it was the turpentine camps that were the largest employers of black male labor during the early part of the twentieth century. In 1928, life for black workers in the turpentine camps was remembered by one observer as follows.
Harvesting turpentine was a rough business that operated with what was virtually slave labor... Violence was a fact of life in the labor camps run by white men who brought in former slaves to do the work. Though the lumber and turpentine camps shared the common bond of pine trees, they had nothing in common otherwise... In fact, the lumber crews looked down on turpentine types, as did the general population.
Another Florida observer remembered, “the Turpentine still…worked convicts leased from the state. In many cases they were pretty badly abused. They were probably 95 percent blacks.” Perhaps the most scathing denouncement of the camps came from Stetson Kennedy who headed the WPA Florida Writers Project from 1937-1942 and published a collection of Florida folklore and oral history in a book called Palmetto Country.
More than any other occupational group, these Negroes are denied the rights for which the Civil War was supposedly fought. As one who knows told me, ‘A Negro who is foolish enough to go to work in a turpentine camp is simply signing away his birthright.’ They are held in abject poverty and peonage by a combination of forces quite beyond their power to oppose.
In the Catholic settlement of San Antonio the African American turpentine workers were held in no better regard than in other parts of Florida. In 1903, one columnist’s description of San Antonio included a commentary on the blacks working in the nearby turpentine camp,
San Antonio is a small town. St. Leo College is one-half mile east of here. Negroes are not allowed here to settle, the few which are here work in the turpentine stills, and if the still is moved the negroes go with it.
Indeed, San Antonio residents were not above resorting to time-honored southern methods of keeping these blacks in their place. In an 1899 article entitled “Black Brute Lynched at San Antonio,” the San Antonio Herald newspaper reported,
After a thorough and impartial investigation, his guilt was clearly evinced. He was led forth to be dealt with summarily, but justly, and in a few minutes the body of the fiend was dangling from the Corrigan Building and riddled with bullets, a fitting punishment that will always be dealt to such fiends.
The hate and hostility and violence suffered by African Americans prompted the Saint Leo monks to engage in the controversial activity of attempting to elevate the position of the blacks in Pasco County through ministry and employment. So it was near San Antonio, in a turpentine camp called Klondike, that the Saint Leo monks established their first Negro mission, a difficult endeavor as the black workers already had established their own churches in the camp. In 1894 a Saint Leo monk named Benedict Roth wrote, “Rev. Fr. James opened up the Negro Mission in a shack used as a barn near St. Thomas, on the road toward St. Joseph’s Fla.” In a later entry Roth wrote that the mission was “abandoned after a year” due to opposition from the black ministers who “roped in all the black sheep & threatened them with excommunication if they attended the Romanish church.” Ten years later the monks mounted another effort to establish a mission at the camps. In Pioneer College Horgan quotes Saint Leo’s Fr. Augustine Feller’s description of the results of this endeavor, which failed due to strong opposition from local whites.
On the appointed Sunday the whole camp turned out and crowded the Church. ‘The whites of the neighborhood raised objection to the undertaking, amongst them, unfortunately some members of the congregation. When Fr. Augustine visited his new congregation the following Sunday, ‘the negroes were so intimidated that, although anxious to come to the church, they did not venture because as they said, they were threatened with violence on the part of the whites. This settled the negro mission for the present.
Despite opposition from both black protestant preachers and the white community, the monks continued this work. In 1906 Saint Leo’s Fr. Aloysius reported, “a few Sundays ago, [Fr. Augustine]…baptized and received into the Church, a negro boy at St. Joseph, which was, I suppose, the first Negro convert in this part of the country.” In 1907, even the bishop came to visit the Klondike Camp mission. And, although many whites were against the monks’ efforts to establish missions for blacks, there were Catholics who were proud of these endeavors and who shared the monks’ vision of a good society that was inclusive rather than exclusive. In the same non-activist racist language employed by many Catholic clergy and nuns of the time, a white Catholic visitor wrote of Saint Leo’s monks,
The zealous Fathers are striving also to gather up the negroes into the true fold. They remember the command about preaching the gospel to all nations, and they are fully aware that in the conversion of the negroes to the true Christianity lies, alone, the true solution of the Negro Problem.
Emphasizing the Benedictine belief in an inclusive society, a participant in a turn of the twentieth century flag raising ceremony for Saint Leo boys and Holy Name Academy girls observed, “The patriotism taught here is neither sectional, racial, nor sectarian, but an inclusive one; for the spirit of the laws of the Prince of Peace pervades all their efforts.”
Throughout the next century, Saint Leo continued to maintain a special relationship with African Americans, supporting them in innumerable ways and, perhaps more importantly, employing them. As the years progressed it became clear that the growing Saint Leo community was the preferred place of employment for African Americans in the area – a place where they were treated with a measure of respect not afforded them by other white employers and for which the monks were criticized. They continued the controversial and subversive practice of supporting African Americans despite the continuing persecution the monks themselves were enduring due to their own status as foreigners and Catholics in the xenophobic South. As Anti-Catholic sentiment increased during the early decades of the twentieth century, state legislation targeting the Catholic practice of teaching black students was passed forbidding white teachers from teaching black students – a law that would effectively shut down Catholic schools and missions that were teaching black students throughout the state, including the Benedictine nuns who were associated with the Saint Leo community. As World War I progressed, the monks were accused of all manner of espionage activities.
In his “Short History of the San Antonio Area” local historian William G. Dayton explained,
San Antonio and the surrounding area maintained a distinctly Germanic character until the era of the First World War when Florida was convulsed with an unprecedented wave of Anti-German feeling combined with a strong Anti-Catholic movement led by the state's governor, Sidney J. Catts. Governor Catts was widely quoted (and widely believed) to the effect that the "German" monks at St. Leo had an arsenal and were planning to arm Florida Negroes for an insurrection in favor of Kaiser Wilhelm II, after which the Pope would take over Florida and move the Vatican to San Antonio (and, of course, close all protestant churches).
Also, during WWI the German Saint Leo monks were accused of installing a spy device for the Germans on the top of one of their buildings and federal investigators were dispatched to assess the threat. The spy device was a telescope for astronomy students. Further, in a fit of patriotic fervor, the locals burned down Saint Leo’s chemistry building to punish the monks for colluding with the Germans.
Whether the monks were being attacked for being German or for being Catholic, they never reacted passively, but always defended themselves and their faith very stridently and very publicly. Abbot Charles Mohr wrote a pamphlet denouncing “the wave of bigotry threatening these parts” that asserts “the Roman Catholic Church is the menace most to be feared.” “For twenty-five years and more have you had before your eyes the Catholics of …[this community],” asserted Father Charles Mohr in 1911, “what have they done to make you afraid?” “The Catholics and their institutions here,” he continued, “are a help and not a menace to the community.”
Despite Father Mohr’s insistent defense of Saint Leo’s Catholic community, in 1916, Ku Klux Klan leader and future U.S. senator Tom Watson of Georgia published a diatribe against the Saint Leo Monks entitled, “Murderous Monks in Florida.” He called them “murderous” because anti-Catholics accused the monks of murdering a tax collector who attempted to tax church property. In this document he called the monks “a gang of crooks” who own an outrageous amount of land in Pasco County, “pay not one cent of taxes and live like kings and work the poor people to death.” He went on to assert that if the anti-Catholic gubernatorial candidate J.T. Catts was elected, he had heard rumors that the monks would have him assassinated and insinuated that the publisher of this document should be worried for his life as well.
With his usual refusal to be intimidated, Fr. Charles Mohr responded in a published document called “Those Murderous Monks of Pasco County Florida, by One of them.” These monks were not meek and silent. They were outspoken and outraged. The monks were just as unwilling to back down when they were criticized and threatened for their support of African Americans. Further, they publicly supported efforts toward racial equality throughout the twentieth century.
For example, as early as the 1930s a Saint Leo monk spoke out against racism at the Solemn Conclave of Protest against racial and religious intolerance conference at Rollins College. And, in 1969 Saint Leo College President, Fr. Marion Bowman, gave a series of talks on racial justice in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In his presentation he denounced institutional as well as individual racism and discrimination. He asserted, “the Talk of …promoting racial and social harmony…extends not only to governments and churches and the business community, but to each and every individual as well. How we think about it in our homes and among our friends is crucial.”
Putting these values into action and leading by example, during this same time period, the Saint Leo grounds were opened to local black children for swimming, track, and other recreational activities in the Jim Crow South at a time when African Americans were not allowed access to such facilities in the white community.
Saint Leo also continued to serve as an important source of employment for area African Americans in an environment where they felt respected rather than oppressed. For these reasons Saint Leo holds a special place in the hearts of blacks still living in the area. When asked what his experience was like living near and working at Saint Leo throughout his life, one African American man explained,
It was a wonderful experience. It brought income into our community. They gave us an opportunity to experience quite a few things, [like] the sports activities, we had access to the swimming areas, which [was not allowed]…nowhere around here, and that brought the community together.
Similarly, an African woman who has been associated with Saint Leo since her birth in 1952 remembered,
At Saint Leo…Father Marion Bowman was the President and my grandfather used to be grove-keeper of the birch grove that’s behind Saint Leo and so he and Fr. Marion were real close and so he told him ‘when the girl gets old enough she can go to college.’ So my first year of college all I paid was fifty dollars, just for my books because father Marion said, this is the way we’re going to do it.
Later she worked for Saint Leo in various capacities. Eventually she became an office coordinator and her position as a black office worker was viewed as an important symbol of status and pride within the African American community, as prior to this most blacks worked in housekeeping, grounds keeping, or in the kitchens. She summarized her experience working with her white colleagues at Saint Leo as follows.
As far as my relationship with everybody there, it was like a family. I mean, during those times they had the Christian values. Everybody knew everybody there. My children knew everybody else’s children… and that’s the way the closeness was.
For African Americans who grew up within Saint Leo’s sphere of influence, the legacy of the monks’ Benedictine values and their vision of the Good Society is very real. For 125 years, theirs has been a “good society” in which Benedictine values were put into action despite threats against them and despite the determination of southern whites to continue to perpetuate their vision of the good society as a bastion of perpetual white privilege rooted in specific and active discrimination against African Americans.
 Remillard, Arthur. 2011. Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era: Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011, 1-2.
 Ibid., 2.
 Carlton, Sr. Mary Regina. 1940. Public secondary education for negroes in florida. University of Florida Digital Collection, 7.
 Bresnahan, Reverend Patrick J. Seeing Florida with a Priest. Zephyr Hills. Economy Print Shop. 1937, 74.
 August 5,1886 letter from Fr. Gerard Pilz to Archabbot Boniface, Chronology of the History of Saint Leo College, Volume I,. August 10, 1881 –June 18, 1894. Saint Leo University Archives.
 Mattick, Barbara E., "Ministries in Black and White: The Catholic Sisters of St. Augustine, Florida, 1859-1920" (2008). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 2668, 72
 Bresnahan, 77.
 Mattick, 47-48.
 Ibid., 48.
 The Colored People and the Church. Why the Catholic Religion is Specially Adequate to Convert the Negro – How this People may be Elevated.” Catholic Mirror, Palatka, Fla., April 1, 1873. Clipping in microfilm of Diocesan Records, Reel 14, Item 1(Y)N15, P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, University of Florida, Gainesville., 2.
 1910 Saint Leo, FL Census and 1930 Lake Jovita, FL Census and Horgan, James J. Pioneer College, Saint Leo College Press, Saint Leo, 1989, 357.
 Department of Commerce and Labor – Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910 – Population, Precinct 9, St. Leo’s College, Saint Leo, FL.
 Horgan. 335
Feb 4, 1908. Chronology of the History of Saint Leo College, Volume II, June 24, 1894-Oct 5, 1908. Saint Leo University Archives.
 Dayton, William G., “Interesting Facts of Pioneer Days in Pasco,” Pasco County News. April 26, 1928.
 Starkey, Jay, “Things I Remember: 1899-1979, ” .Hydroscope Newsletter of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. 1980, 45.
 Kennedy, Stetson. Palmetto Country. Florida Historical Society Press, 2009, p. 261 (Original publication Palmetto Country, appeared in 1942 as a volume in the American Folkways Series edited by Erskine Caldwell).
 The Waterloo Daily Courier, by Jacob Schaefer, November 2, 1903.
“Black Brute Lynched at San Antonio, San Antonio Herald 1899.
 Sept. 7, 1899. The San Antonio Herald reports, “The unusual ringing of bells last Sunday morning at 3 a.m. was due to a revival, which had been in progress in the colored churches of the turpentine camp.”
 Saint Leo Golden Jubilee, 1890-1940: History and Illustrations Commemorating the Founding and Activities of the Order of Saint Benedict of Florida at Saint Leo, Florida., Abbey Press, Saint Leo, Florida, U.S.A. MCMXXXX, 29.
 November 27, 1894. Chronology of the History of Saint Leo College, Volume II, June 24, 1894-Oct 5, 1908. Saint Leo University Archives.
 Horgan, 351.
 “The Afterglow of Christmas Blessings” a Crystal River, FL woman named Mrs. George Stratner chronicled her visit to San Antonio and Saint Leo to visit the Catholic communities there during Christmas at the turn of the twentieth century.
 Holy Name Archives, Scrapbook. From Newspaper article, “Flag Raising at Holy Name Academy,” early 1900s in which the Rev. F.X. Reker addresses Holy Name Academy and Saint Leo Prep students at a Flag Raising ceremony for Washington’s birthday.
 Carlton, 26. Laws of Florida, 1913, Chapter 5490
 Horgan, Pioneer College
 June 14, 1911. Chronology of the History of Saint Leo College, Volume III, October 5, 1908 – October 16, 1922. Saint Leo University Archives.
 Horgan, Pioneer College, 339.
 ibid. 340.
 November 13, 1916. Chronology of the History of Saint Leo College, Volume III, October 5, 1908 – October 16, 1922. Saint Leo University Archives.
 “Abbot Francis was one of the principal speakers at the Solemn Conclave of Protest against racial and religious intolerance held Dec. 7, in the beautiful Knowles Memorial Chapel of Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla.” (Saint Leo Golden Jubilee, 1890-1940. P. 70)
 Bowman, Marion O.S.B., “On Racial Justice,” Vicksburg, MI (December 29, 1969-January 3, 1970), Pasco Historical Society. Compiled by James J. Horgan, 1989.
 Community Memory Project interview of Pat Reilly, September 14, 2014
 Community Memory Project Interview, Rev. Willie Roberts, October 23, 2014. Interviewed by Heather Parker.
 Community Memory Project Interview, Gloria Billings Roberts, October 23, 2014. Interviewed by Heather Parker.
 Community Memory Project Interview, Gloria Billings Roberts, October 23, 2014. Interviewed by Heather Parker.