Know Your History
(Dave Eyer is taking a research break this week. This post was compiled from public sources by Ray Warren)
As we face a potentially life threatening pandemic, it is useful to remember that Key West once faced such a calamity on nearly a yearly basis. Until the discovery that mosquitoes caused yellow fever (and subsequent efforts to avoid the mosquitoes and/or control them) yellow fever was an almost yearly plague upon the island. At least two of our former rectors fell victim to the fever.
The Rev. J. L. Steele
, who served from 1874 to October 13, 1878, was a well loved and respected leader. In December of 1875 the Bishop of Florida visited Key West. At that time St. Paul’s was bursting at the seams and there was some discussion of establishing new parishes to serve the growing black Bahamian and Cuban populations. (This is before the construction of the current church, which dates only to 1919.) Both St. Peter’s (serving mostly local black Bahamian citizens) and St, John’s (to serve, in Spanish, a largely Cuban congregation) were organized during that visit.
(Note, black members were never required to leave St. Paul’s, and some stayed after the organization of the new parish. St. Paul’s has always been multi-racial, though most of the parish's black members elected to attend the high church Bahama inspired services at St. Peter’s once it was established.)
It fell on the Reverend Steele to minister to all three congregations until St. Peter’s and St. John’s obtained their own ministers. Adding to those duties, he also taught a parish school for boys, which he taught himself without any assistance. In the words of on chronicler, “the vestry felt unable to render financial assistance; nonetheless Dr. Steele, feeling that the undertaking could no longer be deferred, added the school to his already crowded program".
When Father Steele died in October 1878, he was buried in the city cemetery in a plot given by Livingston W. Bethel, a prominent Key West attorney who was, at that time, the Mayor of Key West, and an active supporter of the parish.
Steele's wife, Kitty had died in the previous January. The Journal of the Convention of the Diocese of Florida recorded that
“he and his most estimable wife, whose death preceded his by nearly a year, conjointly united the parish around them, and won the hearts of all classes and conditions alike. The death of Dr. and Mrs. Steele alike, was felt to be a calamity to the whole city of Key West, a large portion of the population of which, with heads bowed and hearts stricken with grief, swelled the procession that escorted their remains to their last resting place.
After a short interim period, in which a newly ordained local priest associated with St. John’s served all three parishes,
the Reverend Charles A. Gilbert
, who had visited Key West in 1873, was called to the be St. Paul’s (and St. Peter’s) rector, Unfortunately, his ministry was of short duration. On November 8, 1880, he died at his post of duty of yellow fever.
“Only two years and a few days had intervened between his death and that of his worthy predecessor, who died in the same rectory of the same disease”
. The Bishop felt that Mr. Gilbert's resistance had been lowered by excessive work as he had served both St. Paul's and St. Peter's parishes and had assumed the oversight of the schools.
Once again Mayor Bethel (who would go on that year to be elected Lt. governor of Florida) provided a final resting place for a St. Paul’s minister.
The tombs of the two rectors (pictured here) and Kitty Steele (the wife of the Rev. Steele) can be visited in the Key West city cemetery. It would be years before the true cause (and cure and preventative) for yellow fever were discovered and that ancient plague dismissed from life in Key West.