Mandarin: St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Old St. Augustine Road

by Tim Gilmore, 6/21/2012

In February 2011, two Republican mayoral candidates meet at the city’s largest Catholic church to discuss what they would each do as mayor. Mayoral candidates don’t roam around meeting with the public much this campaign season, and Mike Hogan, the frontrunner, won’t even debate in public forums. Instead the candidates meet in churches and work to win over church congregations. A little more than a third of the city’s population will vote this election, and most of them are churchgoers. It doesn’t really matter to most of the population what Mike Hogan might say to a church congregation. What matters in terms of getting Hogan elected is that the churchgoing 30+ percent who vote like what he tells them in church.

And they like what they hear. When Hogan says the only thing he wouldn’t do to stop abortions is bomb an abortion clinic, but that the thought has crossed his mind, the congregation laughs and applauds. They likewise like hearing that he would not have supported a Muslim University of North Florida professor joining the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, but they applaud even more enthusiastically when he says it doesn’t really matter whether Dr. Parvez Ahmed is on the commission or not, since when he becomes mayor, he will get rid of the Human Rights Commission altogether.

What nobody in the St. Joseph’s congregation can know right now is that Hogan, the fait accompli candidate, will lose in the closest mayoral election in city history. They don’t know that he’ll lose to Alvin Brown, who challenges everything the city thinks it knows about itself. They don’t know that Alvin Brown, a long shot at the beginning of this race, will come up from behind and beat Hogan by less than one percent—97,057 to 95,521—to become Jacksonville’s first black mayor. They don’t know it’s possible for Jacksonville to elect a black mayor. They are the voting 30+ percent of the population, after all, though the city’s black population is almost as high as its voting population and a significant enough portion of the city’s 59 percent white population will end up supporting Brown. And Brown himself frequently will say things like, “Thanks to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!” and “Can I hear you say ‘faith’?” and “Stand up if you love Jesus!” when he speaks at college commencement ceremonies and public-private partnership meetings.

On this day in February, the St. Joseph’s congregation doesn’t even know Alvin Brown, who, upon winning, some will describe as conservative and some will describe as progressive. But they do know they like Mike Hogan and they know Mike Hogan wouldn’t really bomb an abortion clinic, but they’re pleased to hear him joke about it.

Most likely, nobody in this church auditorium would bomb an abortion clinic or vandalize a cemetery. Most likely.

Four years out of one decade, someone has vandalized property that belongs to this church, and no one has ever been caught.

But first, a strange reassignment of meaning to a place. A decade ago, Philip stumbled onto these church grounds with a girl with whom he’d been drinking wine. He didn’t know this part of town and had never seen this church before. He had never found the place since. She put her hand into the upraised hand of a statue of St. Francis and broke some of the roots in his heart. In weeks to come, panic welled up within him, and he thought he was losing his mind.

Last Tuesday he was visiting a sick colleague in an apartment complex on Old St. Augustine Road. He had his six year-old daughter Phoebe with him. As they were driving away, he saw the copper-colored dome of the church glint in the sun. They parked at the church and walked through an arch of some blooming vine he did not know toward a live oak and then to a statue of St. Francis. This place was that place. He and his daughter looked up into the stone face of St. Francis, devastated and repaired since Philip had last seen him. They put their hands to his hand. They felt only peace in this place. This place was their place now.

In the summer of 2000, someone busted out security lights at the church cemetery around the corner on Loretto Road. In the middle of the hot night, they were quiet and destructive. They could see each other’s cigarettes and the moonlight in the trees. They moved nimbly among the graves. They knocked down angels. They toppled Virgins Mary. They gripped their fingers down into the earth and flung over 16 headstones. They smashed 10 statues among the graves and the trees. One statue of the Virgin they could not budge, they left a cigarette smoking in her stone lips, and they disappeared into the surrounding suburb.

A few years later, someone with a quiet step, someone with the talent for being all but invisible even in a crowd, snuck onto church grounds and stole the baby Jesus from the outdoor plastic nativity. Hours after the Reverend Daniel Cody told his congregation about the missing Jesus, someone slipped out of the surrounding suburbs and left the stolen plastic statue at the back door of the church parsonage where Cody lives.

But the next year the baby Jesus was stolen again. They took a sheep as well this time. And this time, neither statue was returned.

Two years later, two statues of St. Patrick lay broken across the ground. One Patrick’s feet still stood on their base, though his body lay cloven nearby, and his head was missing. Three statues of the Virgin Mary had been knocked to the ground and broken, one marble Mary fractured to pieces. St. Ann lay cracked at her own feet, and St Francis, that peaceful man who met all the animals he encountered with an instantaneous and natural communion, also lay broken at his base.

One parishioner told newspaper reporters that “someone […] just wants to be very demonic.”

Phoebe was named after Phoebe Snetsinger, herself named after the bird, who traveled the world for decades looking for birds, and whose life list of sighted birds included more than 8,400 of the 10,000 species of birds on the planet. When Phoebe put her hand into the upraised hand of the statue of St. Francis, she healed and sutured the injured roots in his heart. Tranquility spread through him, equilibrium readjusted him, and he knew a peace of mind arriving within his chest and his belly and his limbs.

Philip had never heard of the vandalisms and he wasn’t a Christian. He had no animosity toward Christianity, he just had no faith in it. He believed in Human Rights. He didn’t believe in bombing abortion clinics. He did believe in pilgrimages and the power of those who love us to heal us, especially when they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. He believed in medium-sized olive green birds called phoebes who lay their eggs in nests of mud and grass, downed with moss and hair, on the ledges of buildings and bridges, on cliffs, or in the uplifted roots of fallen trees atop embankments next to streams and rivers. They might as well be angels. He believed in such birds and he believed in roots and in limbs. He believed, he supposed, yes, in St. Francis.