On the surface, the town of St. Leo easily could be underestimated.
After all, the town’s population is just 1,350, and it has a tiny town hall.
But this place of rolling hills recently turned 125, and its history was celebrated with a mass at Saint Leo Abbey, followed by a barbecue luncheon and speeches at Saint Leo University, and then, an ice cream social.
Abbot Isaac Camacho presided over the mass, while luncheon speakers included St. Leo Mayor Richard Christmas, Saint Leo University President Bill Lennox, Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader, local historian Bill Dayton and Holy Name Monastery Prioress Sister Roberta Bailey.
Those attending the luncheon had a chance to mill about, perusing tables that displayed artifacts offering a portal into the community’s past.
Items on display included a wedding dress dating to 1914, parts of the first telephone in St. Leo, a quilt with one square featuring the Serenity Prayer, old spectacles, displays from the town’s centennial celebration, historic photographs and newspaper clippings.
A slide show featuring about 250 images played continuously — creating a backdrop that prompted memories and sparked conversations.
During the luncheon, Mayor Christmas thanked Saint Leo University for providing the facilities for the festivities, and praised Town Clerk Joan Miller and Deputy Clerk Andrea Calvert for their hard work in organizing the celebration.
Without all of the help, Christmas said, “what we would have had here today, I think, (would have been) a very short 125th anniversary in the parking lot of St. Leo Town Hall, and we would have died of heat stroke in 5 minutes, and we’d have left.
“It’s really nice that we’re able to be here,” he said.
Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader, who grew up in the area, congratulated the town for its historic milestone.
“As some of the pictures were going through (the slide show), it reminded me of the good old days growing up on Lake Jovita,” he said.
He recalls fishing for brim and enjoying the Jaycees’ fish-a-thons.
“Those are the fond, fond memories,” Schrader said.
Sister Mary David was pleased to be at the celebration.
“It’s wonderful that they’re getting in touch with their history, because a lot of times people don’t have any idea, where they came from, or what — what —stands for.
“If we can honor those who came before us, and their hard work and their values, we can grow. It’s like a tree. Those are the roots,” said the sister who just recently celebrated her 50th Jubilee.
A land development option
Historian Bill Dayton shared the story of St. Leo’s beginnings with an audience of around 100.
St. Leo’s history traces back to a time when Florida was in dire financial straits, Dayton said.
The state was on the brink of bankruptcy when Philadelphia financier Hamilton Disston bailed it out by purchasing 4 million acres of land, at 25 cents per acre, Dayton said.
The transaction occurred in 1881, and Edmund Dunne, a devout Catholic and former chief justice of the Arizona Territory, handled the legal work on the deal.
For his attorney’s fee, Dunne — who wanted to form a Catholic Colony — took his payment in the form of an option to develop 100,000 acres, Dayton said.
Then, he and his cousin, Capt. Hugh Dunne, hiked over much of the northern portion of the Disston Purchase to select the lands for Dunne’s development option, Dayton said.
While scouting that land, the men climbed up a hill — to just about where the university sits today. They saw a beautiful lake, and since it was Saint Jovita’s Feast Day, the lake was christened Lake Jovita, Dayton said.
Judge Dunne claimed the top of the hill for his homestead, and he created a plan for the San Antonio Catholic Colony. That plan called for San Antonio to be the center of the colony, with satellite villages, named for saints, at the points of a compass. Land in between was preserved in forest, Dayton said.
“It was a very sophisticated and advanced land ownership plan,” Dayton said.
Within the colony, Dunne wanted a college, a monastery and a convent, Dayton said. All three came to fruition.
The Benedictine sisters arrived in 1889 and moved into the former Sultenfuss Hotel, at the north end of the square in San Antonio. The monks arrived that same year, to establish a college, which was chartered in 1889 and held its first class in 1890, Dayton said.
There was hostility among the locals when the monks arrived, Dayton said.
“Father Charles (Mohr) received word that a local vigilance committee was talking about burning the monks out,” Dayton said. So, Mohr rode out to the farm of one of the vigilance committee leaders. And, when he arrived, he found that that man was ill, and his wife was exhausted.
Mohr took charge of caring for the man, and the plans for burning out the monks were extinguished, Dayton said.
The great work still goes on
St. Leo’s incorporation stemmed, in part, from a dispute between the monks and the Pasco County Commission, Dayton said. At the time, county commissioners had the authority to order residents into the task of clearing and building roads, he explained.
Mohr was infuriated when commissioners drafted monks to do road labor, Dayton said.
“He wrote an angry letter to the County Commission pointing out that the Constitution of Florida exempted clergymen from road labor,” Dayton said.
Mohr also consulted a leading local lawyer who advised him to pursue incorporation, and that occurred in 1891, the historian said.
Dr. J.F. Corrigan, who had been a wealthy New Yorker, was one of the original colonists and went on to become the town’s first mayor. When he moved to the area, he built a three-story mansion, complete with a private chapel that had received papal sanction, Dayton said.
Dayton concluded his remarks by saying, “The town of St. Leo persists to this day and has maintained its integrity and its identity, and that’s a great accomplishment.”
Sister Roberta Bailey, now serving in her second term as Prioress at Holy Name Monastery, reminded those gathered of the sacrifices that were made through the years, to create the St. Leo that exists today.
“We preserve our stories because we want never to forget that the opportunities we have today were not simply lavished upon us,” Bailey said. “They were purchased at a great price, at travel from home; cold, cracked, work-worn knuckles; study by night with midnight oil; stomachs that ached with hunger; raking, hoeing and manuring groves and gardens; saving, skimping and salvaging.
“What firm faith and incredible courage our founding sisters must have had,” Bailey said. “Imagine what daring it took to venture south into this unknown territory,” Bailey said.
Since arriving in 1889, the sisters have been educators and administrators, town mayors and commissioners, members of various boards, leaders of religious programs and ministries, and involved in work in surrounding communities and in other states.
“Now, here we are at the 46, 516th day of the 127th year of our history — yes, we were here even before St. Leo was a town,” Bailey said.
“The great work still goes on,” she said. “As long as there are gaps between our ideals and our reality, there will always be great work to be done.”
The case for incorporation
“Citizens of St. Leo, as already indicated by the public notices, Feb. 24 is to be the birthday of our little town. Let us turn out in full force on that day. Let nothing keep us at home. Let it be our boast that we cast our vote for incorporation.
“No town can prosper unless there is a unity of spirit among its inhabitants and this unity of spirit can only be brought about by incorporation.
“Incorporation means a long list of benefits that shall certainly be ours after the election — better roads, better feeling, enterprise, success. Come to Dr. Corrigan’s house at 10 a.m. and cast your vote for the prosperity and welfare of the new town.”
Dated: Feb. 16, 1891
Signed: B.M. Wichers, N.P. Bishoff, J.F. Corrigan
A papal honor
Pope Leo XIII conferred on Hon. Edmund Dunne, formerly chief justice of Arizona and new head of the Colony of San Antonio, the title of Count.
— Except from a report by The New York Times, Feb. 22, 1884
Published August 3, 2016