Accessions of much worth

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Key West.

WHITE as a catechumen’s robe, St. Paul’s Church gleams against the blue vault of the Key West sky. Just steps from the sanctuary doors passes a spectacle decidedly less pure: the all-hours procession up and down Duval Street. The distance between church and promenade, sacred and profane, seems at once negligible and immense. This incarnation of St. Paul’s is a century old and the fourth on the site, fire and hurricanes having destroyed its predecessors. That it came to be, and to be here, owes much to the faintly remembered enterprise of a young William A. Whitehead.

With a belated baptism at age 16 into the religion of his father, a British subject born on a Caribbean isle, began Whitehead’s lifelong engagement with the forms, tenets and governance of the Protestant Episcopal church.1 But when he came five years later to live on Key West, he found no church there, no clergyman, no organized religious observance. Except during an occasional visit from a traveling divine, the islanders did without baptisms and communions. In the event of a death when no clergyman was on hand, a layman read the burial service at the gravesite, something even Whitehead did at least once.2

Elected to the town council within weeks of his arrival, Whitehead began to urge the isolated community to hire a resident minister, one who would not only conduct regular services and administer sacraments but also direct a school. At a public meeting in March 1831, it was agreed to seek funds to support a clergyman, and the appointment of one from the diocese of New York.

A committee of six men, including Whitehead, wrote to New York’s bishop, avowing that freewheeling Key West had experienced something of a sea change: its society had acquired a less transient, more permanent character; it had received “late accessions of much worth” in the form of upstanding, respectable citizens; and life on the island would now be much more pleasant for “a Gentleman or Lady of refinement, taste, and education,” should the position be given to a married man. The committee promised a salary of $500 in the first year, and $500 more to hold lessons. Anticipating a response from the bishop both fast and favorable, Whitehead and the others began to raise money locally for construction of a church.3

The longing for a settled minister occupied not only Whitehead, but family and friends far to the north. His father in New Jersey wished for his son “the long desired gratification of having the services of an episcopal clergyman,” while his brother John made parallel efforts to secure one while on a visit to New York.4

The concern of the Whitehead family sprang from more than an altruistic regard for the spiritual welfare of Key West’s population: the Whiteheads were among the island’s original proprietors, and its material prosperity affected theirs. The rector of the Whiteheads’ church in Perth Amboy, James Chapman, also eagerly monitored Key West’s ecclesiastical progress: a firm Episcopalian foundation would consolidate the Whiteheads’ relations, and Chapman’s own, with his most redoubtable parishioner James Parker, whose daughter was to marry William A. Whitehead in 1834, cementing the alliance between the two families.

But from March to October 1831 the appeal to the bishop went unanswered, and the designs of the Whiteheads and their friends came to nothing. The editors of the Key West Gazette, failing to conceal their irritation, declared “we think that our respectful application was entitled to some notice from the Bishop of a Christian Church.” So deep was the committee’s discouragement that it recommended inviting a clergyman “of some other denomination to come among us.”5

It’s unclear what broke the logjam, but after almost two disappointing years an Episcopal clergyman finally came to live on Key West. Sanson K. Brunot, the son of a Pittsburgh physician and descendant of French Huguenots, had ministered to communities in western Pennsylvania before taking ship for Key West in November 1832. Arriving just before Christmas, Brunot became William Whitehead’s houseguest, and before a congregation that included Whitehead and his brother celebrated the first service that Christmas Day.6

Whitehead by this time had started to introduce into the custom house a measure of domesticity. The former “bachelor’s establishment,” with “the one plate, the one tea cup, the one knife and the one fork,” had recently been enhanced with furnishings brought from the North, and two boatmen of the customs service were hired to cook and serve meals. But that winter was not kind to Whitehead’s boarder, the Reverend Brunot. He was “far gone in consumption,” his host recalled, and illness kept him from most of his ministerial duties. In the spring he returned to his family in Pittsburgh, “merely living to get home,” and died at the age of 25.7

Already the congregation had proceeded to organize, under a territorial charter, as “St. Paul’s Church, in the city of Key West.”8 Whitehead was elected a member of the first vestry, which at Brunot’s suggestion applied to the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society for a replacement minister. Considering Key West a missionary station may have sparked new interest, but St. Paul’s was to languish without a clergyman for more than a year after Brunot’s departure.

When the Society appointed Alva Bennett as “missionary to Key West,” it arranged for him to spend the summer of 1834 raising funds to build a church. Whitehead “engaged” him, presumably in the name of his fellow vestrymen, while on a visit to New York, and along with their families they sailed together for Key West in October.9

Alva Bennett first officiated on All Souls’ Day before “a large proportion” of the island’s population. During his sojourn he counted between 100 and 150 regular attendees at Sunday services, which were held in the courthouse, the only building on the island that could accommodate a large assembly. Bennett exulted in the success of the Sunday school, which in a short time boasted eight teachers, fifty students and even a library.10 Whitehead had returned to the Keys with a worthy “accession” of his own in the person of his bride of two months, Margaret Parker. Besides the “great revolution” she effected in his domestic life, she also gave a “new impetus” to Bennett’s Sunday school.11

On a certain Sunday when the crew of a U.S. Navy schooner was in port, Bennett found the appearance of the congregation particularly impressive:

In one place were seated the soldiers in their uniforms; in another the marines, likewise in uniform; in another the white, and in another the coloured inhabitants of the Island. These people here united in offering up their devotions and listening to the Gospel, were assembled, as was remarked to me, from every state in the Union, probably from different West India Islands, from Africa, and many of the countries of Europe.12

Such gratification didn’t suffice, however, to keep Bennett at his post: six months into his tenure he had gone, “with no intention of returning.” Filling the vacancy anew struck Whitehead as a critical need: “no place, we think, within the limits of the union presents greater claims as a Missionary station.”13 Yet this time St. Paul’s was to wait for a new pastor even longer than before.14

With the appointment of Scots native Robert Dyce, who took charge in late summer 1836, Key West finally had a minister who it seemed would last, at least until the island’s only church had a home of its own. In order to raise funds in distant parishes, Dyce must have drawn substantially on the strategies of William Whitehead.15 He echoed Whitehead’s denunciations of northern “prejudices” against Key West, by which “capital and enterprise are kept away,” and unstintingly pressed the urgency of the Key West mission. While pleased to report a “general desire” for religious instruction and the successful resumption of weekly services “to very devout congregations,” Dyce regretted that Sundays were still distinguished by “greater idleness and dissipation than the rest of the week.”16

The widow of an original Key West proprietor offered a lot on which to build the island’s first church, a boon to Dyce’s fundraising efforts.17 But William Whitehead was approaching the end of his Key West period: by late 1837 his mother, now living in Pittsburgh, was a widow as well, and he’d started to contemplate his return to the North. Within a year of Whitehead’s departure the vestry broke ground for a church, and St. Paul’s became one of seven founding parishes in the infant Diocese of Florida. Yet Robert Dyce, encountering new and still greater difficulties, was soon compelled to give up the rectorship out of concern for his health,18 and the congregation, when their church was all but complete, had to ask for new contributions to save it from foreclosure.19 The transcendent and the worldly are, after all, never that far apart.

Copyright © 2022-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] A month shy of his seventeenth birthday, Whitehead was baptized with his older brother Thomas and Thomas’s eldest daughter. As Whitehead would later explain, his father had wished for Mrs. Thomas Timpson, who as a second mother to him in New York had been a baptismal sponsor to the children of his first marriage, to perform the same service for the children of his second; the difficulty of finding a convenient time was the reason for the postponement. Trinity Church, Parish Register, 1813-1845, under date 18 January 1827. New Jersey Historical Society, Manuscript Group 882, Trinity Cathedral in Newark, Newark, N.J., Box 19. Transcription of an unpublished memoir under the title “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” of which copies are held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida (hereafter “Childhood and youth”); page 22 of the transcription contains the reference.

[2] Key West (Fla.) gazette 25 May 1831 3:2: marginal note in Whitehead’s copy. A month before Whitehead arrived Benjamin B. Strobel “read the service of the Episcopalian church” at the funeral of a British sea captain. William R. Hackley, Diary, in Goulding Collection, Special Collections, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee, MSS 0-128, entry of 23 December 1830.

[3] Key West gazette 21/28 March 1831 2:3-4; Key West gazette 4 May 1831 3:3.

[4] Letters of James Chapman, Perth Amboy 11 and 18 July 1831, 13 November 1832, to Thomas Naylor Stanford. Thomas Naylor Stanford Papers, MC 608, Special Collections and University Archives, Alexander Library, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.

[5] Key West gazette 19 October 1831 2:2; “Public meeting,” Key West gazette 19 October 1831 2:2-3. After adjournment sine die of the second public meeting in October, the committee continued to solicit funds for a church building: Key West gazette 14 December 1831 2:4.

[6] “Childhood and youth” 34; letter of Rev. Robert Dyce, dated 22 November 1836 and printed in The spirit of missions 2:2 (February 1837) (43-46; hereafter Dyce [1836]) 44.

[7] “Childhood and youth” 34-35; “The church at Key West,” The missionary record of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (hereafter The missionary record) 2:9 (September 1834) 137; Dyce (1836) 44.

[8] “An act to incorporate the Protestant Episcopal congregation of Key West,” Acts of the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida, passed at the eleventh session, commencing January the seventh and ending February the seventeenth 1833 (Tallahassee 1833) 90-92.

[9] “Proceedings of the Executive Committee,” The missionary record 2:5 (May 1834) 71; “The church at Key West”; “Childhood and youth” 36-37; Key West (Fla.) enquirer 1 November 1834 3:1, 3; “Marine list,” Key West enquirer 1 November 1834 3:3.

[10] Key West enquirer 8 November 1834 3:1. (This report was reprinted in The missionary record 3:2 [February 1835] 21-22.) “Key West. From the report of the Rev. Alva Bennett, officiating at Key West,” The missionary record 3:4 (April 1835) 55. After the Florida legislature revoked Key West’s charter, city authorities contributed $12 to the Sunday School library, a donation Whitehead acknowledged in The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 11 April 1835 3:4.

[11] “Childhood and youth” 36-37. According to Whitehead the Sunday school was established “a few years previously”; according to Walter Maloney this occurred even before Rev. Brunot came to the island. Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida. An address delivered at the dedication of the new City Hall, July 4, 1876, at the request of the Common Council of the City (Newark, N.J. 1876) 32. Bennett, however, was said to have come “well supplied with books for a Sunday and other school, both of which, it is in contemplation to establish, under his guidance and direction.” Key West enquirer 1 November 1834 3:1. In 1829 an “academy” and a Sabbath school were opened, but I’ve found no evidence of a Sunday school attached to St. Paul’s until Bennett’s arrival. Key West (Fla.) register 12 February 1829 2:3, 3:3; “Sabbath school,” Key West register 23 April 1829 2:5.

[12] “Key West,” The missionary record 3:4 (April 1835) 55.

[13] The enquirer 25 April 1835 3:3; “Marine intelligence,” The enquirer 25 April 1835 3:4. According to his successor, Bennett “was not pleased with the climate, and this and other causes induced him to return to the North, after a residence of about five months.” Dyce (1836) 45. Bennett carried to New York specimens of plants, including “cactus & agave,” which may have been sent from Mexico by Henry Perrine: Alva Bennett, Geneseo, N.Y., 13 April 1836, to John Torrey, John Torrey Papers, 1768-1871, New York Botanical Garden, LuEsther T. Mertz Library. For more about Henry Perrine’s botanical enterprise in South Florida, see my earlier post The collectors (2).

[14] Francis A. Foxcroft was appointed to the position but “induced, by the persuasion of friends, to relinquish his intention” in January 1836. “Proceedings of the Domestic Committee,” The spirit of missions 1:2 (February 1836) 36; “Proceedings of the Domestic Committee,” The spirit of missions 1:3 (March 1836) 66; Proceedings of the Board of Missions of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, at their first annual meeting, held in the city of New-York, on the 22d day of June, A. D. 1836, and continued by adjournments to the 28th of the same month. Together with the reports of the Domestic and Foreign Committees, and the accounts of their respective treasurers (New York 1836) 50.

[15] In the course of 1837 donations were recorded from three churches in South Carolina, one in Georgia and one in Ohio. The spirit of missions 2:3 (March 1837) 93, 2:6 (June 1837) 188-189, 2:9 (September 1837) 287, 2:10 (October 1837) 319.

[16] Dyce (1836) 44-45. Cf. the excerpt of Dyce’s letter dated 1 January 1838 in The spirit of missions 3:4 (April 1838) 107. In the second year of his labors Dyce remained hopeful, although not everyone preferred church attendance to outside temptations: “The communicants have increased; yet there are many who still resist every application, private as well as public.” Letter from Dyce dated 2 April 1838 and reprinted in The spirit of missions 3:7 (July 1838) 207.

[17] Dyce (1836) 45.

[18] Letter from Robert Dyce, Key West 1 January 1839, excerpted in “Proceedings of the Domestic Committee,” The spirit of missions 4:3 (March 1839) 78-79; Proceedings of the Board of Missions of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, at their fourth annual meeting, held in the city of New-Haven, on the 19th and 20th of June, A. D. 1839; together with the reports of the Domestic and Foreign Committees, and the accounts of their respective treasurers (New York 1839) 52; “Fourth annual report of the Committee for Domestic Missions,” The spirit of missions 4:8 (August 1839) 243; “Missionary notices, (domestic),” The spirit of missions 4:11 (November 1839) 370; The spirit of missions 4:12 (December 1839) 373. Proceedings of the Board of Missions of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, at their fifth annual meeting, held in the city of New-York, on the 17th, 18th and 19th of June, A.D. 1840; together with the reports of the Domestic and Foreign Committees, and the accounts of their respective treasurers (New York 1840) 41.

[19] Letter of William Marvin et al., Key West 15 March 1843, to the Secretary of the Home Missionary Society, New York, printed in The spirit of missions 8:5 (May 1843) 131-132. Even at a remove of more than a decade, this letter preserved the memory of Whitehead’s pivotal role in the origins of St. Paul’s Church: “Cut off from all direct communication with their friends in the various sections of our country, and subjected to privations which are met with in no other part of it, the inhabitants of this isolated spot seemed to consider themselves beyond the pale of the church, and absolved from the ties of morality and religion. About this period, however, from various causes, but principally from the acquisition of a few intelligent families, an improvement in the morals of the people became apparent; and Mr. W. A. Whitehead, then a resident here, availed himself of the auspicious movement to impress upon all reflecting men the advantages to be derived from the presence of a clergyman. The result of his efforts was a request from the municipal authorities, that they would adopt immediate measures to carry his recommendation into effect.”

Image: St. Paul’s Church, Key West, author’s photograph, 2015.

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