Saint Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral is in the heart of commercial Orlando (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
While most of Ireland was suffering severe winter conditions and was covered in a 32-county blanket of snow, I spent a week in Orlando. Florida is known as the “Sunshine State” – but throughout the week I woke to freezing conditions each morning. There were blue skies each day, but the temperature never climbed much above freezing.
Orlando is the main city in Orange County and the fifth largest city in Florida. It has a population of over 230,000, and the wider metropolitan area has over 2 million people. It is also home to the University of Central Florida, one of the largest universities in the US.
Since the 1970s it has been home of world-famous amusement attractions, including the Walt Disney World Resort, the Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld, making Orlando the third most visited tourist destination in the US.
I wasn’t expecting the unusually cold weather they were having in the Sunshine State. Nor was I expecting mediaeval cathedrals, archaeological digs, or classical sites. But, while there are few archaeological sites today to tell their story, the Orlando area was first populated by the Creek and Seminole people.
A local legend says Orlando is named after one of the main characters in Shakespeare’s As You like It, which may explain why one of the main streets in downtown Orlando is called Rosalind Avenue – it is also known as Lando Costa.
One local legend says the place was named Orlando after Orlando Reeves, a soldier who died in the area during the Second Seminole War. The US took control of the area in 1821, carving out Mosquito County in 1824. Undeterred by its unattractive name, European settlers started arriving in Mosquito County around 1836 or 1837. When those first pioneers arrived, they found the words “Orlando Acosta” carved into a tree, assumed this marked the grave of the first settler, and referred to the area as “Orlando Acosta’s grave” or simply as Orlando.
But Orlando was first known as Jernigan, named after the first permanent settler, Aaron Jernigan, a cattleman who acquired land along Lake Holden in 1842. Most of the pioneer settlers did not arrive until the 1850s, and many of those early residents made their living by cattle ranching. Mosquito County was divided in 1845 and Orlando became the centre of the new Orange County in 1856.
Orange County’s origins, celebrated in a cathedral window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Throughout the American Civil War in the 1860s, the area remained a rural backwater. Post-bellum reconstruction brought new prosperity and Orlando was incorporated as a town in 1875, when the total population was 85, and as a city in 1885. Orlando was the hub of Florida’s citrus production until the Great Freeze of 1894-1895 forced many owners to give up their independent groves, allowing a few citrus barons to consolidate their holdings and shift production further south.
During in the first two decades of the last century, Orlando became a popular resort, but the real boom came after 1965 when Walt Disney decided to build Walt Disney World in Orlando, rejecting plans for a park in either Miami or Tampa. Disney World opened in 1971, and brought with it an explosion in population and economic growth that made became the lynchpin of the local economy.
A variety of churches
Orlando has a wide variety of churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford (2010)
I tasted some of the vast array of churches in Orlando, including Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Black Pentecostalist, and Baptist churches.
A warning outside Downtown Baptist Church just weeks before the Superbowl (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Outside the brashly-named Downtown Baptist Church, there was one of those wacky signs that make America unique: ‘Biggest game of all – the ”Eternity Bowl” Don’t land in the smoking section.’ They were hardly referring to last month’s Superbowl; nor do I imagine it was warning against the use of incense in the Episcopal Cathedral a few blocks away.
Barbara Heck, the Irish missionary, is recalled in a window in the United Methodist Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The United Methodist Church has a stained-glass window honouring the memory of Barbara Heck and Philip Embury, two Irish-born Methodists who were among the first missionaries in North America.
I was invited to lunch in a Greek Orthodox parish which has an interesting ministry with marginalised immigrants, including Christians from Sudan, Egypt and Syria who are mainly Orthodox or who have found that they are not welcome in what should be their own traditions. As an Irish visitor, I was pointed with pride to a full-length icon of Saint Patrick.
Saint Patrick in an icon in an Orthodox parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint James is being rebuilt but continues a wonderful ministry among Spanish-speaking Hispanics in Orlando, many Florida-born but many more from Puerto Rico, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean and Central America.
Modern cloisters beside a Presbyterian church in Orlando (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
A Black Pentecostalist congregation worshipping in an hotel conference room was warmly welcoming to two European tourists who were the only two white people to walk in.
As for Saint Luke’s, the Episcopalian Cathedral, I had a wonderful experience of Anglican cathedral liturgy, and the Sunday Eucharist was an example of Anglican liturgy at its best.
Episcopalians in Orlando
There are three TEC dioceses in Florida, and Orlando is the cathedral city of the Diocese of Central Florida, which is part of Province IV of TEC. The neighbouring dioceses are the Diocese of Florida to the north, and Southeast Florida and Southwest Florida to the south.
The story of Anglicanism in Orlando begins in 1869 when Francis W. Eppes (1801-1881), a grandson of Thomas Jefferson, moved there with his family from Tallahassee and built a log cabin in a still sparsely-settled area. A Lay Reader, he organised the scattered Episcopalians in the area and conducted the first Episcopal services in his home in Orlando. This small group formed the nucleus for what would become Saint Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral.
Eppes and his contribution to the Episcopalian presence in Orlando are celebrated in a stained glass window at the south stairs in the narthex of the cathedral.
The story of Francis W. Eppes is told in a cathedral window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
At the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1892, South Florida was designated a “Missionary Jurisdiction,” and the first bishop, William Crane Gray, made his home in Orlando. Ten years later, Saint Luke’s was named the Cathedral Church of South Florida in 1902.
When Bishop Gray retired in 1910, he presented the cathedral with a processional cross that was still in use a century later at the Sunday morning liturgy on I attended. The carved oak pulpit from which the Revd Christine Maddux preached that morning is a memorial to Bishop Gray.
A Brasso can in a window celebrates the work of women in the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
In 1922, the General Convention made South Florida a diocese and the first diocesan convention or synod was held in Saint Luke’s Cathedral in 1923. A new cathedral, designed by Frohman Robb and Little of Boston – the architects of the National Cathedral in Washington – was built between 1925 and 1926, and the first service in the new cathedral was held on Easter Eve, 3 April 1926.
Dean Melville F. Johnson built the L-shaped educational that was dedicated as a memorial to members of the cathedral who died in World War II. The chapter house was built in the 1950s by his successor, Dean Osborne R. Littleford.
In the 1950s, when several suburban churches were built in Orlando, many cathedral families moved out to encourage the growth of new parishes. When the Diocese of South Florida was divided in 1970 to form three new dioceses, Saint Luke’s continued as the cathedral of the Diocese of Central Florida. While Dean O’Kelley Whitaker was at Saint Luke’s (1973-1980), the cathedral grew as a downtown parish and became a centre for excellence in worship, liturgical arts and music. A stained-glass window in the priests’ sacristy includes a discreet shamrock in recognition of his Irish roots.
A shamrock in a window recalls a dean’s Irish roots (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The cathedral building project was completed while the Very Revd Harry B. Sherman was dean. A temporary wall built in 1926 to block off unfinished work was removed and between 1986 and 1987 the cathedral was completed along the original plans, with the addition of the apse, ambulatory, priests’ and working sacristies, a bell tower and Saint Mary’s Chapel.
Three new dioceses
The Risen Christ above the High Altar in Saint Luke’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The three dioceses of Central Florida, Southeast Florida and Southwest Florida were formed in 1970 out of the older Diocese of South Florida. Central Florida is one of the most conservative dioceses in TEC, and in 2004 the diocese joined the “traditionalist” Anglican Communion Network (ACN).
In 2006, the diocese appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Panel of Reference for “immediate alternative primatial oversight.” Despite the tradition of the diocese and the conservative reputation of Bishop John Howe, six congregations in the diocese separated from TEC in 2008 and joined the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMiA), which is linked to the Anglican Church of Rwanda.
Bishop Howe said his three months of negotiations with the priests and parishes who decided to leave were the worst period of his life. “Our brokenness is a tragedy,” he added.
As the Diocese of San Joaquin in California and other groupings left TEC, the Diocese of Central Florida realigned itself with conservative interests seeking to remain within TEC while demanding change. In a letter to the Central Florida Episcopalian, Bishop Howe said he still remains in communion with TEC and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
At its annual convention or diocesan synod at the end of January, the Diocese of Central Florida affirmed the Anglican Communion Covenant. So far, it is the only TEC diocese to pass a resolution on the covenant. The earliest time by which TEC as a whole can officially consider the covenant is the General Convention of 2012, but Bishop Howe said dioceses are “free to ‘affirm’ the covenant if and when they choose to do so.” Referring to a letter from Archbishop Rowan Williams, Bishop Howe added: “I have repeatedly said that I believe the only hope for the Anglican Communion is in following the Archbishop’s lead in drafting and adopting this Covenant.”
Anglican liturgy at its best
Eucharistic images ... an altar frontal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The Very Revd Anthony P. Clark has been the Dean of Saint Luke’s Cathedral since December 2006, and celebrated the Cathedral Eucharist on the morning I was there. This was Anglican and Episcopalian cathedral liturgy at its best, in the style of celebration, in the choral excellence, and in the preaching by the Revd Christine Maddux – this was her final Sunday in the cathedral before taking up a new appointment in North Carolina.
Dean Clark was warmly welcoming beforehand, but the cathedral congregation also exercised a real ministry of hospitality, inviting me to coffee in the cathedral hall beforehand, and providing a detailed, guided and friendly tour of the cathedral afterwards.
Eucharistic images ... I am the Bread of Life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The liturgy lasted for almost two hours, but no-one appeared concerned about length or time. If every Anglican cathedral celebrated liturgy and offered hospitality like this, the Anglican Communion would be a very exciting community. Long may we respect our diversity and each other’s opinions and values.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature essay was published in the March editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossoty)