February 14, 2008
(An excerpt from Father Augustine Hewit’s Life of the Rev. Francis A. Baker, CSP, the Catholic Publication House, 1868, pages 158-66)
In November 1856, Francis Baker, recently ordained into the Redemptorist Order, was sent to Savannah, Ga., by his superiors to assist a mission band on a tour of the southern states. After assisting in missions across the state, Father Baker boarded the steamer General Clinch in Savannah on Jan. 29 with two of his fellow missioners. Father Augustine Hewit was one of the two colleagues who accompanied Father Baker on this journey, and their destination was St. Augustine, Fla. As Father Hewit recorded, this trip came for Father Baker at a most important point in his missionary career. His three-year seclusion in the convent had left both his health and vigor impaired. His experience on the southern tour would provide him with the spiritual uplift needed to propel his ministry forward. This trip would remain for the rest of his life his most cherished mission memory.
The steamer was very small and crowded, our progress very leisurely and interrupted by several long stoppages so that our voyage was protracted for five days. It is seldom that a more motley or singular and amusing group of passengers is collected in a small cabin. Besides the three Catholic priests, who were to the others the greatest curiosities on board. We had an army lieutenant, since then the commander of a corps d’armee in the great civil war; and old wizard who was consulting his familiar spirits incessantly for the amusement or information if the passengers; a plantation doctor; a wild young Arkansas lawyer of the fire-eating type; a professor of mathematics; a crotchety, good-humored New York farmer with very peculiar religious opinions; a young man who had professed himself a universal skeptic; two or three gentlemen of education and polished manners who were not at all singular but appeared so in such an odd assemblage; and some others in now way remarkable. The cramped accommodations, the long voyage and the usual bonhomie which prevails on such occasions were well fitted to draw out all the oddities and idiosyncrasies of the company. The spiriutalist, who was an uneducated and uncouth specimen of humanity with a great deal of native shrewdness and good-humored loquacious disposition, was the center of attraction. The professor and the philosophical farmer engaged with him in a long and earnest discussion of spiritualism, which ended in him exhibiting his powers as a consultor of the spirits. Most of the passengers made a trial of his skill in this aspect, although his performance the most patent of silly impostures, only amusing from its absurdity. … We did not join in much of it, as it was evidently distasteful to several of the company, who wished to read quietly or converse on ordinary topics. Before we parted, however, one of our number took the opportunity which offered itself of having a little pleasant and rational discussion with the professor and one or two others, who were really intelligent and well-informed. On New Year’s Day, we remained several hours at St. Mary’s, Ga. … Friday saw us befogged above Jacksonville, and on Saturday morning, we learned to our dismay that our captain was going past our landing and on to Pilatka, which would keep us on board this miserable little craft until the next week and prevent the opening of the mission on Sunday. Touching for a few moments at Fleming’s Island, we found friends at the little dock who were passing the winter in the island and who informed us that we could go from there that afternoon to our destination. We debarked accordingly, our friend the professor in company with us, and were refreshed with a good breakfast at the hotel where our friends were lodging, and a stroll around the little island. On the arrival of the steamer, the whole party went on board and proceeded to Picolata, where we took stagecoaches to St. Augustine, arriving there on Saturday evening. …
The mission in St. Augustine absorbed the whole attention of the Catholic population, who formed a large majority of the inhabitants. Great numbers of them gathered to welcome the fathers on their arrival, and whenever they went they were met and greeted by groups of these simple, warm-hearted people, and followed by a troop of children, who live there in a perpetual holiday. There was scarcely any business or work done there at any time; the climate and fertility both of the land and the water in the means of subsistence furnishing the necessities of life to the poorer classes without much trouble. Most of these pass their time in fishing, and even this occupation is intermitted, so that on Friday there was not a fish to be found in the market.