From parish priests
to missionaries in florida (part two)
Irish-born Father Patrick J. Bresnahan was incardinated in the Diocese of Saint Augustine in 1904, following theological studies in Rome and Baltimore. His first assignment in the diocese, which he pursued in one form or another for 30 years, was Diocesan Missionary to non-Catholics. He was the first and last parish priest in Florida to hold that title.
On circuits from the Georgia border in the north to Fort Pierce on the Atlantic coast and to St. Petersburg on the Gulf, Father “P.J.,” as he liked to be called, preached missions to the unchurched, white and black alike, to Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians, and to “fallen away” Catholics. Thanks to his keen knowledge of church doctrine and the scriptures, his eloquent vocal delivery, and his generally winning ways, Father P.J. had a profound impact on the growth and deepening of the Catholic faith on the Florida frontier.
Though he preached in the larger cities, his favorite venues, he wrote in 1937, were the smaller towns, backwoods hamlets, and bare country dwellings. “The country people are religiously inclined and [a priest] can always secure some building, even if it is only a home or barn for the noble work.” Thus we find him welcomed in such little-known places as River Junction, Brady’s Farm, Branford, Gum Swamp, Hixtown, Bayard and Diego (later Palm Valley). True, there were some adults of prejudiced mind in the smaller communities, even some outright bigots, but Father P.J. generously observed that, almost to a person, those individuals could be won over by a loving, respectful presentation.
In some places Protestant ministers offered him their churches in which to speak. Some lent him their choirs. Some attended his nightly homilies and instructions. Elsewhere he spoke in courthouses, theatre halls, or schools. Sometimes he spoke in Catholic churches, for example, St. Peter’s in DeLand, on March 29, 1908. A northern tourist recorded: “The seating capacity was taxed, about sixty percent of those present being non-Catholics, including many of the leading citizens.”
The only truly threatening conditions to face this hinterland ecumenist occurred in the same year at Madison, where a delegation of African Americans, only one of them Catholic, asked if he would give them a mission in the church of St. Vincent de Paul that Father P.J. had just constructed there. The priest readily agreed and invited the black Christians to sing the hymns with which they were most familiar. Halfway through the week’s mission the priest found an unsigned note affixed to the church door stating, “that if I wished to live I must give up preaching to the Negroes.” Undaunted, he completed the mission services with a loaded revolver, out of sight, on the altar. “I fear, however,” he wrote later, “that the Negroes got scared, for after that they never again entered the door of our church.”
When he finally retired from his far-flung apostolate, Father P.J. expressed his pride at being an “alien” who became a “Florida Cracker.”
Michael Gannon, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida, and noted author on the history of the Catholic faith in Florida.