St. Augustine Catholic
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Covered in Prayer
All May be One

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from the archives
A Letter to the Great Chief

by Michael Gannon, Ph.D.

When the Christian mission Indians began to disappear from Florida, thanks to British and British-sponsored raids into Florida, Creek Indians along the Georgia-Alabama line looked cravingly at the vacated farmlands and deep rivers of the upper peninsula. Beginning in the early 1700s, some Creeks left their ancestral villages and occupied the former mission villages. They became known as “run-aways,” or Seminoles.

Their problem, once here, was that the United States Government coveted the same space, and fought three “Seminole Wars” to take it away, brazenly violating treaties it had signed with the Seminole people. The Second Seminole War (1835-42) was the longest Indian war ever fought in this country. At the conclusion of the third war in 1858, there were barely 200 Seminole left in Florida, and they fled for refuge into the tree islands of the Everglades at the southernmost reaches of the state.

In that same year, Florida’s Catholic population, numbering about 3,000 souls, received their first-ever resident bishop, French-born Augustin Verot, from Maryland. Bishop Verot must have learned early on about the Franciscan friars and their mission Indian converts during the 17th century because, in his first apostolic message written three months after his arrival, he wrote about Florida “which two hundred years ago…abounded with devoted and self-denying missionaries who had set at naught everything that the world holds dear for the sake of diffusing the light of heaven among those who were sitting in the shadow of death.”

Fourteen years later, Bishop Verot learned that Indians were living in the Everglades. Mistakenly believing that these were remnants of the mission Indians - they were in fact Seminoles, who had never been evangelized - he decided to send them an emissary who would invite them “back” to the practice of the Catholic Faith.

The man he chose was 54 year-old Father Peter Dufau, like Bishop Verot a native of France. A man of distinguished dress and bearing, he was of average height and slender build with shoulders somewhat stooped, over which draped long locks of hair turned prematurely white. His facial features were ascetic, his nose aquiline, his eyes bright and piercing, and his forehead broad. Everything about him bespoke intelligence and refinement. At the time he served as vicar-general of the Diocese of Saint Augustine.

To Father Dufau Bishop Verot gave a letter that he was to present to the Great Chief in the Everglades. It began:

“Beloved Children: You may, perhaps, remember that in former times your ancestors lived in settlements and villages in various parts of the country, and specially around St. Augustine, on friendly terms with those who then governed the country, and were Spaniards, and professed the religion which the Black Gowns had preached to you.”

Well, of course, being Seminole, the Everglades Indians would have had no collective memory of that. So what happened? We’ll just have to wait until our next issue, when we will follow southward the good Father Dufau.

Michael Gannon, Ph.D.