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Birth of St. Cyprian's Church

Trinity Parish is St. Augustine's first Episcopal church - the oldest in Florida, in fact. Trinity did not escape the racial turmoil of the post-Confederate south. In the face of rampant discrimination, St. Augustine's black church-goers chose to attend black churches, none of which were Episcopal.

One black Episcopal woman was too devoted to her faith to give it up. Her name was Julia Jackson, and she was from the Bahamas, where the Episcopal Church had its greatest success among the black community. When Ms. Jackson moved to St. Augustine and visited Trinity nearly thirty years after the Civil War, she could see why black people were uncomfortable there. She decided to give this town a Negro Episcopal church. She wrote to Bishop Weed with her concerns. Then she invited some friends and started preaching her faith wherever comfortable space was available. Bishop Weed soon sent a deacon to take over for Ms. Jackson, and in 1893, the Florida diocese reported the first black Episcopal congregation in St. Augustine. It consisted of twenty members meeting for services in a rented building.

St. Cyprian of Africa

Saint Cyprian of Africa

The African-American congregation named their new Episcopal church after Saint Cyprian of Africa (200-258), whose life bears a striking resemblance to that of Saint Augustine of Africa (354-430).

In the third century, Cyprian wrote, "When the stain of my earlier life had been washed away by the help of the water of birth, then straightway in a marvelous manner doubts began to be resolved, closed doors began to open, dark places to grow light; what before had seemed difficult was now easy, what I had thought impossible was now capable of accomplishment" (Treatise on the Grace of God).

St. Cyprian's as a Building

The new St. Cyprian's Episcopal congregation held together through six years of temporary facilities. In 1899, their devotion was rewarded by the generosity of a wealthy member of their white sister church, Trinity Parish. Emma White was the wife of a New York stock broker, and the sister of Trinity's Rector. As the story goes, Mrs. White heard the St. Cyprian's congregation singing hymns in one of their temporary Sunday accommodations. She embarked on a campaign to provide them a home worthy of their faith.

St.Cyprian's 'Carpenter Gothic' style church

St.Cyprian's 'Carpenter Gothic' style church

Mrs. White donated a lot on the corner of Central Avenue and Lovett Street. Then she solicited donations from her friends in Florida and Connecticut. She also provided the building plans, which resembled her own house and church in Connecticut. The congregation pitched in the rest, and a local black builder headed up the construction.

In 1900, Bishop Weed proudly consecrated the unique and beautiful new church in the presence of the congregation, the local newspaper, and many St. Augustine residents. It's steeply pitched roof, heart pine interior, and diamond-shaped windows made it an immediate treasure for the city. The newspaper called it "very comfortable and churchly," and went on to say, "It is a great day for the colored people, especially those who have been brought up in the Episcopal church but for lack of one attended the services of other denominations, and may now worship in their own."

St. Cyprian's as a Congregation

After its consecration as a mission church, Bishop Weed appointed the Reverend Peter Cassey as its first deacon-in-charge. Cassey came from a northern white family of black advocates. But rather than cause political friction in St. Augustine, he cultivated a sort of peaceful prosperity. For the next seventeen years, Reverend Cassey built the church up into a solid, comfortably segregated pillar of St. Augustine. When he died in 1917, the local paper said "the deceased was known for his kindness and good works among the colored people here, and they turned out in large numbers to pay their respects; the church could not hold all who sought to be present at the service, which was presided over by Bishop Weed. A large concourse formed the procession to the place of burial."

Stained glass window honors Dr. Rudolph and Mrs. Rosalie Gordon

Stained glass window honors Dr. Rudolph and Mrs. Rosalie Gordon

A plaque in St. Cyprian's sanctuary honors their beloved Reverend Cassey, and he certainly left his mark on the church. The standard was set for working with the community instead of against it.

With diligence, black people at St. Cyprian's earned respect from their white employers. With patience, they saw their lives improve slowly over time. One member knew she was respected by the white family she cleaned house for. She said, "The day they tell me to use the back door is the day I quit."

By the 1950s, many of St. Cyprian's members were succeeding as school principals, teachers, doctors, dentists and other professionals. One of those professionals was Dr. Rudolph Gordon, America's first black maxillo-facial surgeon; he built the medical-dental office at 79 Bridge Street. He and his equally- accomplished wife, Rosalie, are memorialized for their church involvement by a stained-glass window at St. Cyprian's. Rosalie was further memorialized by a tribute John Mica presented to Congress in 2004. The Gordon's met at a St. Cyprian's church picnic.


 
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