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Minorcan Priest Statue

The Minorcans' Faithful Priest

The Minorcans recruited by Andrew Turnbull to work his indigo plantation in New Smyrna had nothing but toil and bitter privation ahead of them in the New World, but they were lucky in one thing at least, the man who went with them as their priest. Rev. Michael J. Curley in his book "Church and State in the Spanish Floridas" has left us an account of this remarkable man, who kept together the only Catholic congregation in East Florida during the years of British rule.

Father Pedro Camps was 38 years old when he sailed from the Island of Minorca to be the spiritual leader of the immigrants, along with an assistant, Father Bartolome Casanovas.

The two priests were instructed by the Holy See to contact their new bishop in America, but the authorities in Rome were not fully aware of the geographical realities involved. Father Camps believed his new superior to be the Bishop of Santiago de Cuba, but to communicate with him from British-held Florida was easier said than done. When two Cuban fishermen chanced to put into New Smyrna Inlet in 1769 he had his chance, and hurriedly penned a note for them to take to Bishop Echeverria, telling him of the arrival of the Minorcans and of the sufferings which they were already enduring.
The Bishop was understandably suspicious of a hasty note banded to him by a couple of rough fishermen and purporting to be from a place of whose existence he was totally ignorant. He investigated, which took time, and it was almost two years before Father Camps received any answer. From then on he communicated with his bishop in Cuba, but only clandestinely, as opportunities arose.

In spite of all sorts of difficulties, Father Camps held his flock together and ministered to their spiritual needs with devotion and courage, but things were going from bad to worse in the Turnbull colony. The founder was seldom there and the overseers he left in charge were brutal, demanding, and cruel. Father Casanovas spoke out against the abuses practiced on his people, and in 1774 was deported for his pains, leaving Father Camps all alone. When Father Camps ventured to present a petition asking for better conditions, he was rudely told to leave temporal affairs strictly alone. He had no choice except to obey because if he, too, was sent away there would be no priest at all.

Finally in the spring of 1777 the Minorcans could bear it no longer, and made their historic long march to St. Augustine. Not all of them were able to leave, however. Many were down with malaria or suffering from other diseases, and Father Camps chose to remain with these unfortunates and help them in their plight. He served as a doctor, helping to care for the sick, and as an undertaker, preparing the bodies of those who died for burial.

Everything was in short supply, as the overseers refused to pay out even the wages owed the workmen; even Father Camps salary of $350 a year, guaranteed him by Turnbull, was held back. At last a ship came to take the survivors to St. Augustine, but the authorities first refused to let Father Camps go along, although they finally relented and he was able to rejoin his parishioners in St. Augustine in November of 1777.

When the Spaniards returned in 1783, they sent two Irish priests, but Father Camps was still badly needed. He was the only priest in town who could speak Mahonese and thus hear the confessions of the Minorcans. So he stayed on, although he longed to return to his home in the Mediterranean and rest after his years of arduous service.

Finally, death claimed the prematurely aged Father Camps in May of 1790. He was a faithful shepherd of his flock until the very end.

coat of arms

Florida's First Fourth of July

Strangely enough, the first Fourth of July celebration ever held in Florida took place in British-held St. Augustine in the very heart of town, practically in the shadow of the Castillo, then a bastion of English military might. The day was honored by a group of American prisoners, three of them signers of the Declaration of Independence, who were interned in the Ancient City for nearly a year at the end of the Revolutionary War.

As rebellion rumbled through the 13 colonies, St. Augustine which had been taken over by England from Spain in 1763, more and more began to resemble an armed camp, as the British realized that the American patriots were undoubtedly casting a speculative eye upon its strong fort and strategic position. In 1775 the ship Betsey was taken by privateers just off the inlet and the powder she carried, originally destined for the defense of St. Augustine, went north instead and was used to fire the bullets which killed redcoats at Bunker Hill. The British garrison repelled all forays over the Georgia border, including the last serious attempt in 1778, and as time went on the town began to serve as a sort of concentration camp for Yankee prisoners.

When the siege of Charleston ended in capitulation and surrender, the terms of the agreement signed with the Americans stipulated that all militia and sympathizers with the revolutionary cause could remain in their homes and await transfer as prisoners of war, but the British did not keep their word. A number of prominent citizens and soldiers, including General Gadsden who had signed the treaty for the colonies, were rounded up and shipped down the coast to St. Augustine. The first contingent, numbering 37 prisoners and their 26 servants, landed in September of 1780; others came later and raised the roll to 66 men.

After giving their parole, the prisoners were allowed a good deal of freedom to walk around town and they were assigned a large unfinished house with an orange grove and garden.

General Gadsden refused to give his parole, however, as he was incensed with his captors for not honoring the treaty, and he was shut in a dungeon in the Castillo. At one point there was concern about his life, since the English threatened to kill a prisoner in reprisal for the hanging of the spy, Major Andre, by General Washington.

The months of captivity dragged by. The prisoners had comfortable quarters, plenty of fruit and fresh vegetables, and an endless supply of fresh fish, but they all disliked the strong-tasting sulphur water.

Loss of freedom is never a good thing, and there were harassments by their captors. Roll call was held three times a day, they were forbidden to wear uniforms, and religious services in their quarters were banned after one of their number, the Rev. John Lewis, preached a somewhat inflammatory sermon. Their captors told them they could attend Church of England services, or none at all. Since no one was eager to pray for George III, there were no takers.

Friends among the local citizenry gave them newspapers, but all of them were naturally British publications which gave only a one-sided picture of the progress of the war. It is not difficult to imagine their jubilation when, early in July of 1781, a ship entered the harbor carrying orders for the immediate exchange of prisoners. They were going home!

It certainly called for a celebration and they had one on the Glorious Fourth. There were toasts and speeches and the banquet ended with an enormous English plum pudding, which was defiantly decorated with a little flag bearing thirteen stripes and thirteen stars. The British were astonished, however, when they heard their erstwhile prisoners joyfully singing "God Save the King." They should have listened to the words, new ones, written that very morning by Captain Thomas Heyward, especially for the occasion. "God Save the Thirteen States. God Save Them All."


 
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