Thursday, September 10, 2015

Farewell to the 450th

As we hope everybody knows, this weekend was the celebration of the 405th anniversary of the founding of the city of St Augustine with the landing of the Adelantado Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Of course, Tolomato Cemetery wasn’t established at that time, and it was not for another 150 years that the refugee Indians from La Natividad de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de Tolomato would be settled on the site of the current cemetery.  Still, the historical connections run back through the families buried there, and also reflect the continuing story of St Augustine.

In fact, Tolomato Cemetery hosted one of the few events of the weekend that had any connection with St Augustine’s real history.  The cemetery was the objective of a procession from St Photios shrine to commemorate the Greek arrival in St Augustine and to bless the graves of all of the St Augustinians buried there.


Greeks? At Tolomato? Yes, St Augustine had a fairly significant Greek population in the 18th century because of the arrival of the Minorcans in 1777.  While most of the Minorcans were actually from Minorca, many were from other parts of the Mediterranean, including Greece. The name of the group comes from the fact that Dr. Andrew Turnbull, the British-period indigo plantation owner, shipped the group out from the formerly Spanish island of Minorca, which was controlled by the British at that time as a result of the same war that had given them control of St Augustine. 

Dr. Turnbull had been the British consul in the Ottoman Empire prior to coming to the American continent, and had married a Greek woman from Smyrna.  This is the reason that he named the colony New Smyrna Beach.


Dr. Turnbull felt that Greeks would be able to tolerate the heat of Florida better than other groups of laborers that the British used.  So they set off for Greece to recruit laborers, but for various reasons were not able to get the number of workers they needed.  So they seem to have sailed the Mediterranean, gathering up immigrants from Sardinia, Sicily and other parts of Italy, and even a Corsican or two…and of course, Minorcans. 

Eight years later, the survivors of this group would arrive in St Augustine and become a distinctive and foundational part of the city’s life.

This year, the commemoration of the Greek arrival was particularly spectacular. The above photos, taken by Nick McAuliffe, give you some glimpses of the celebration, which was organized by our good friend Polly Hillier of St Photios Shrine, whom you see above, addressing the group.  Brooke Radaker took the photo below, where you see the members of the Cantorae St. Augustine, directed by Mary Jane Ballou, singing a Greek hymn as the procession enters.


We had a beautiful gathering of clergy, walking together to bless the graves in this special place and showing once again the wide diversity of St Augustine’s founding population.  Here we see the Orthodox Bishop Demetrious with the Catholic Bishop of St Augustine, Bp. Felipe Estevez (who was born in Cuba, a place closely tied to St Augustine), Fr. Tom Willis, who is the rector of the Cathedral, and Fr. Nicholas Louh of the Greek Orthodox Church.  Louise Kennedy took the photos below.

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They were accompanied by official representatives of the Greek community, and Mayor Nancy Shaver initiated the event by reading a proclamation honoring the Greek landing day. Below, Fr. Nicholas places a flower on a vault.

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There were so many striking photos it was hard to know which to pick.  Here are the two bishops again, in front of the Varela Chapel.

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The procession included Greek dancers, who later performed on the stage on the Plaza.

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The grave blessing at Tolomato was actually part of a larger Orthodox memorial service, which had begun at St Photios Shrine with the prayers and hymns that are traditionally used in this service (which also form part of the funeral service).  It concluded at Tolomato with the blessing and further hymns, and then with something that most non-Greeks were seeing for the first time:  the serving of kolyva. This is a mixture of cooked wheat berries (whole grains of wheat), sesame seeds, nuts, raisins or other dried fruits, pomegranate seeds, sugar or honey and bitter spices.  It is blessed and served in small cups after a memorial service and on similar occasions, since wheat represents the Resurrection and the symbolism of sweetness and bitterness is deeply rooted in religious imagery.  It is a very ancient tradition, and appears not only in Greece and the Mediterranean traditions, but among all of the Slavic peoples as well.  Here’s a sample…I wish we had some sort of tasting device on our IPhones, because it is actually very tasty!


So that was how we celebrated the 450th at Tolomato Cemetery – with a little real, living history!