Part five: George and Harriet Stevens’ Jacksonville winter home and churches

Submitted photo Pictured above is the great oak tree where Harriet Stevens taught Sunday School to black children. The tree still stands today.
By : 
Laura Deering and Donna Hansen
Tri-County Record

In keeping with their active character, Rushford town founder George Stevens and his second wife Harriet (Rees Colfax) may have been the original snowbirds. In 1877 they ventured to the Deep South and built a humble winter home in Jacksonville, Fla., on the Arlington River.

When the Stevens first arrived in Jacksonville, it was on the edge of wilderness, and a boat was needed to access their residence. There were a few other families in the area, including black families. 

Harriet soon recognized that there was a lack of places to worship. She started to fill this need slowly, by teaching Sunday School on her lawn, under a “great oak tree.” It was a profound statement that linked her clearly to the black community. Stated in an obscure church newsletter it documents Harriet, “…starting a Sunday-school for black children, white-headed blacks came to learn to read the Bible,” (Churchman vol 106).

This sentence is significant on multiple levels. Harriet now had a documented relationship with the black community. For elderly blacks – many who were former slaves-- learning to read was punishable by death. For young blacks, learning to read was likely the most powerful tool they would have in navigating their new world. 

As for Harriet, she placed herself at risk of harm by hostile whites, as well as possible arrest for violating certain black code laws. Some 40 years later, people were still being arrested in Florida for teaching black children, such as three Jacksonville Nuns in 1916 (The Florida Historical Quarterly, Jan. 1980). Harriet’s courage may have stemmed from her Civil War service where she nursed wounded soldiers “amidst shot and shrieking shells.” 

Eventually the spiritual needs of Jacksonville grew as the city expanded. In 1887, the Stevens became founders of their second Episcopal church, St. Paul’s, making it Rushford’s Emmanuel Episcopal “sister” church. The Rushford community also shared in building of St. Paul’s, as it is documented, “Harriet and their Rushford friends raised the funds over the summer.” Within a year, the church is built. Its style was that of Wood Carpenter Gothic, one of George Stevens’ favorite architecture forms.

Thankfully, the people of Jacksonville also adored the church, its history and architecture. As Jacksonville grew over the years, the church needed to be physically moved four times. The last journey occurred in 1974, when the church was loaded on a barge and floated across two rivers to its current location at San Marco Park. 

While visiting St. Paul’s this past January, I enjoyed a special moment as I touched the woodwork of this sanctuary and reflected on the Stevens’ goodness. It appears others feel connected the same way; the church is booked for weddings two years in advance.

What about the congregation of St. Paul’s church today? I am happy to share they just celebrated their 130 year anniversary! They are a vibrant and caring church very active today in the Jacksonville community. As their congregation grew over the years, they built a brick church in 1950, complete with basketball and tennis courts. 

It was a special feeling indeed for those of us who attend Rushford’s Emmanuel church to find our “sister” church of St. Paul’s. Another interesting facet of the Stevens’ churches was that both communities, unknowing of the other, chose to preserve the churches at their city historical centers (Rushford Historical Center has a portion of the early Emmanuel’s chapel).

Black church Emmanuel of Jacksonville, Fla.

While finding a sister church was enthralling – what about discovering yet another? Two years after the Stevens helped build St. Paul’s, the Jacksonville black community approached Harriet and asked for their own church. 

In 1890, Harriet not only contributed the blue prints of St. Paul’s for the building of this church, she donated the land and lumber. Harriet also had the wisdom to have the men work as the builders and the women raise funds to help with supplying the men lunches and purchasing church furnishings. 

It was touching and sweet that they chose the name of Emmanuel, the same name of Rushford’s Episcopal Church, which was founded by the Stevens in 1867. Remarkably, with thanks to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a black minister, Rev. J. Herbert Jones, was interviewed in 1937 and there are over nine pages documenting the FL-Emmanuel church and Harriet’s involvement. From this interview we learn more astonishing contributions by Harriet.

Black industrial training school

Once the FL- Emmanuel church building was completed, Harriet recognized another need and started an Industrial Training school for the black community. Once again, classes were held in her mother’s home. As the number of students increased, Harriet built an attachment to FL- Emmanuel church, “all this was accomplished by her untiring efforts” (Churchman vol 106). She next hired a teacher from Minnesota. The classes are to build character and skills. Progressive for the time, the training included classes of male and female students, who were taught the same skills, including sewing. 

The WPA interview continued, “The brightest connection with FL- Emmanuel Church and Mission is that of the Industrial Training School. The interview closes with “Beneath its shelter, they have been baptized, confirmed, married and from it buried. It does mean something to them.”

Harriet died in in 1912, and the FL-Emmanuel church and school were destroyed by fire. It is noted by Rev. Jones, “there being no one with her initiative and spirit behind it, to rebuild and re-establish, this activity ceased. A very regrettable occurrence.” 

Thankfully, with the preservation of St. Paul’s, we know exactly what FL-Emmanuel looked like. Maybe FL-Emmanuel will continue at least in memory to live on. In recently providing the WPA interview to the National Episcopal Church, they now have added FL- Emmanuel to their list of historical black churches.

Our next installment will highlight an interesting connection between Jacksonville, Fla., and the enduring impact on the Rushford landscape that we see today.