by Tim Gilmore, 11/12/2021
1. To Begin at the End
It was time, Reverend Linda Standifer said, that Saturday before Thanksgiving 1992, to end Sunday services at the 122 year old granite and limestone Gothic church. It wasn’t her doing and she was sad to be Snyder Memorial Methodist’s last minister.
Its entire history, Snyder Memorial Methodist Church devoted itself to social justice. It’s the church where one of the first two colleges for black students in Florida formed in 1873, the church where black and white leaders met to discuss racial divisions in the early 1960s. Since it rose from the ashes of the Great Fire, this strong stone edifice has raised its crenellated tower over the center of Jacksonville.
“The building can still be a center for ministry,” Standifer told Lilla Ross of The Florida Times-Union. “Even though it won’t be attached to a worshipful congregation, the church is still committed to working with the homeless and people in poverty.”
Snyder, its last minister pointed out, was one of Jacksonville’s first racially integrated congregations, offered classrooms for pregnant teenagers in the 1970s and included offices for Habitat for Humanity for Jacksonville, or HabiJax, using volunteer labor to build homes in poor communities, until the church’s last days. Its last three pastors were women and Snyder welcomed gay and lesbian worshippers when that fact was still radical. “The church has always been open to everybody,” Standifer said.
A century and a half after the church’s founding, I’m standing above the stage behind the mighty pipes of this silenced organ. The organ pipes span out to either side of me and tower overhead and I wonder how long ago they last sang. It’s like standing behind the ribs of a great fossilized beast.
I look out through the pipes at the rows of dust-encrusted pews down below, espy the cross on the central door to the narthex and the sun burning through the cold downtown air and that grand stained glass roseate window.
2. Abolitionists in the South
All that was saved from the Great Fire of 1901, according to a 1944 church history, was a Bible, four hymnals, a chair, the pulpit and the cabinet organ. In 1870, its founding minister John Swaim’s original vision of a church devoted to racial cooperation held its first services just five years after the Civil War. In 1880, it burnt the first time. When it rose again after the Great Fire, Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church renamed itself for former pastor Edmund B. Snyder.
I love the strange accidents of angles, the conjunctions of corners, the windows that look out on windows, the steps that rise up from head height in the basement to the floor above. What could these steps ever have meant? To where and from what could they have led? These crossings and confluences echo the turnings of time, memory and history itself.
The sign for C.O. Livingston Furniture Co. hung over 24 and 26 Laura Street and someone snapped a photo the year of the church’s founding, 1870. Wagon tracks on the unpaved street trail before storefronts in two-story wooden houses and brick commercial buildings with appended wooden porches toward a steamboat banked at the river. From its position facing the viewer, the ship looks ready to paddle up from its visual terminus and into the city streets.
A New Hampshire native, Charles Ondus Livingston had come through Jacksonville, a wagon maker with the Union Army, in the Civil War. His was the first retail furniture business in Florida. His obituary spoke of “his rugged character and his early struggle,” which “imparted a frugality in habits and an intensity of effort that served him well when he entered mercantile life.”
John Sanford Swaim, an abolitionist from the North and Snyder’s first minister, was friends with Harriet Beecher Stowe, who’d recently relocated to Mandarin, just across the St. Johns River, and whose 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped turned America against slavery.
At a time when Florida Congressman William J. Purman called Jacksonville, a city that largely supported United States forces against the Confederacy, “really a Northern city in a Southern latitude,” Swaim opened the new church to night classes for black students. The following year, 1873, Swaim chaired the official board of the Cookman Institute, one of the first schools of higher education (along with Brown Theological Institute in Live Oak, which eventually became Edward Waters College in Jacksonville) for black students in Florida.
A half century later, Cookman would merge with Civil Rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls to become what’s now Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona. The early history of this “Northern Methodist” church in the South, decades ago disbanded, goes mostly unrecognized, uncelebrated.
3. Into the Next Half-Century (70 Years Ago)
It was October 20, 1902 that Reverend W.H. Harkness announced the breaking of ground for the new church building designed by architect J.H.W. Hawkins. The temporary wooden tabernacle that had risen in the ashes of the Great Fire would be demolished and the congregation would meet in the Aragon Hotel in the interim, but not until the Ladies’ Aid Society of Trinity Methodist Episcopal could host its Book Carnival at the end of January. The new structure would be the church’s fifth.
Four decades after the church held its first services, 40 years after Livingston first sold baby carriages on a dusty street in a town both United States and Confederate armies repeatedly burnt to the ground, The DeLand [Florida] News reported on Friday, November 5, 1909, that Livingston had left $200,000 to Snyder Memorial. The News opined, “This ought to shorten up the faces of some of the pastors—if it is not all sent to the heathen in China and Africa.”
With his obit calling him “a regular attendant and liberal supporter,” Livingston’s estate totaled $750,000, almost $12 million in today’s currency, the largest to that point in Jacksonville’s history. Half his bequest went to his widow Martha along with the Livingston homestead at 130 West Forsyth Street. The rest formed a trust that propped up Snyder Memorial all the way, as congregants would much later say, “to the bitter end.”
Looking from the window of a second story Sunday School classroom in this abandoned church, I see a bistro set on the balcony of a metal fire escape by the yellow brick wall of another building across an interior alley, a red brick wall next door at a right angle behind it. These are the architectural concatenations that link moments across time, for every story’s a ghost story.
Thus would the Christmas Carol Caravan would start at Snyder Memorial Methodist on Christmas Eve, 1953, in correlation with 5,000 young people at other churches in the city. At 7:15, “all the major radio stations and the television station will announce that the young people are ready to go caroling.” The church program announced, “A carol will be played from the station and all the city will be invited to join in the singing. Thereafter, the carolers will invade the neighborhoods with their sweet songs.”
“Yes, it was exactly 50 years ago, come December 27th,” the bulletin announced on December 13, 1953, “that the first services of worship were held in this then-new sanctuary. This year, 50 years later, Sunday again falls on the 27th. We are making great plans for a wonderful day of recognition. Walk with us into the second half-century at noon that day.”
4. What People Did Not Say
Every old church building must be the site of both God and the Devil. The sizeable church that’s existed for some time and not housed sexual abuse is rare. Authority supposedly next to godly is easily abused, even sought for the purpose. Besides, as polytheistic people forcibly converted to Christianity have often pointed out, the Devil is a Christian entity, the concept of all evil concentrated in one terrifying being.
So, yes, newspapers announced that the annual state convention of the Anti-Saloon League of Florida would be held at Snyder Memorial Methodist Church on February 27, 1913. And yes, on August 12, 1950, police arrested Reverend Gordon Hinkle, Snyder’s pastor, for sexually assaulting a 16 year old boy.
Police entered the unnamed downtown theater where Hinkle and the unnamed boy sat in shadows, seized both the pastor of “one of Jacksonville’s most prominent churches” and the young man Hinkle was “fondling.” The boy, frenzied with shame, broke away from an usher and fled into the streets.
Hinkle came to a bad end, but not before national church leadership moved him to other jurisdictions and gave him the chance to abuse other children. The 1951 Journal of the Florida Annual Conference for the Methodist Church lists Hinkle as being “transferred out” to Pittsburgh. I think about Hinkle when I see the message spray-painted in pink letters on the basement wall: “This is the end of your life.”
On Saturday, May 13, 1967, The [Hazleton, Pennsylvania] Standard-Speaker reported, “A former pastor of Diamond Methodist Church, his wife and his mother were found dead in their beds in their ranch-type home in Monroeville near Pittsburgh Wednesday morning.” Hinkle had been pastor of the church in Hazleton from 1940-’45, “went to Florida after leaving the local church” and “served in various charges in the Pittsburgh area after returning from Florida.” So much obtains in the unsaid, the unreported.On Tuesday night, Hinkle, associate pastor at Monroeville Methodist, had attended a board meeting there, returned home at 10:30, parked his brand new car in the basement garage beneath the two bedrooms, left the ignition running and closed the garage door, filling the house with carbon monoxide from the exhaust fumes. Believed painless, it was a common method of suicide. Nobody said if the deaths in the Hinkle house were intentional. There was a lot people didn’t say.
The newswire story wore headlines like The Orlando Sentinel’s “6 Jax Negroes at White Church.” The Reverend Robert John Gisler noted that October 2, 1960 was “Worldwide Communion Sunday,” and said, “Though church officials did not know what Sunday had been selected for the visitation by Negro leaders,” the kneel-in came “as no surprise to the ushers or members of the congregation.”
Gisler served in the Jacksonville Ministerial Alliance, one of the few racially integrated groups in the city. Its representatives met with Sheriff Dale Carson and Mayor Haydon Burns, pushing to desegregate downtown retail outlets and lunch counters and calling for the creation of a “biracial committee” to discuss racial grievances. Burns swore that Jacksonville would remain segregated at all costs. In the months and years to come, the ministerial alliance and an unofficial Bi-Racial Committee made Snyder their meeting place.
On August 27th, Ax Handle Saturday, black students who’d engaged in downtown lunch counter sit-ins were met with baseball bats and ax handles from white supremacists across the street from Snyder in Hemming Park. Several young black protesters, including a 16 year old Rodney Hurst of the Jacksonville Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, later met with the Bi-Racial Committee at Snyder.
Hurst was also one of those kneel-in participants, alongside young activists like Marjorie Meeks and older Civil Rights leaders like Alton Yates. Half a century later, he recalls entering the church and sitting near the front. In his 2008 book It Was Never About a Hot Dog and a Coke!, Hurst writes of Japhus Baker, a reporter for the black newspaper The Florida Star entering the church to photograph the kneel-in. When he snapped a photo, Hurst says, “Church members confiscated his camera and film and ushered him out of the church.”
Hurst speculates that church members may not have known Baker was black, since he was “high yellow” and “looked white enough to pass as white,” adding, “I would like to think that nothing else would have happened to Japhus if Snyder’s congregants knew he was a Black journalist.” Of all the city’s white churches, Snyder, founded by abolitionists and former Union soldiers, surely offered the best prospect for a successful kneel-in.
Gisler called the kneel-in a “marker of a changing time,” adding, “We have had Christians of all races and many nationalities at our altar. The downtown church has long been recognized as the house of prayer for all people.” Hurst says that even at Snyder, “We were not welcomed with open arms. We were extended cordiality, but no Christian warmth.”
6. Mac Plays Bach; Or, The Exportation of James Riggs
“I conducted her funeral,” Linda Standifer says, “but I didn’t kill her. I did deconsecrate her though.” By the time Standifer became pastor at Snyder Memorial Methodist, the church was barely breathing. Its congregation had dwindled with White Flight and downtown decay, nearby business owners resented the church for helping the homeless, and the larger United Methodist Church organization wanted to redistribute the trust monies that kept Snyder alive.
The church had about 50 members when Standifer arrived and no Sunday School classes since there were no children. That proved a dire metaphor: a church with no children. And a prophecy. Linda and Bob Standifer had previously pastored a church in Fort Myers. Bob was taking over a church in Jacksonville’s suburb of Orange Park and Linda was brought in at Snyder to conduct its last rites.
Linda quickly grew fond of Mac, the organist, paid a pittance to make the tall pipes sing, a sound that filled the church, she says, with “a sweet fullness.” The organ never had that harsh grating sound you might expect. Mac would come in at odd times, whenever he could, to practice, and since the sanctuary’s doors were always open, two or three people might wander in on a Thursday afternoon to sit in the pews and listen to Mac play Bach.
The church maintained a clothes closet for its congregants and the homeless, hosted sewing classes in an old Sunday School classroom and offered free meals which would fill the church with 250 people. Some mornings the pews filled with homeless people sleeping and the police came to shut the sanctuary down, saying the church wasn’t a homeless shelter. Standifer remembers the merchants at Jacobs Jewelers being angry with her in particular, “as if,” she says, “I were personally responsible for drawing in homeless people.”
Then came Wednesday, May 8, 1996, when police officers either did a homeless man a good deed or considered him a problem solved. James Riggs, “a scraggly bearded homeless man,” as Mike Stobbe called him in The Florida Times-Union, occupied a wheelchair all day and night on the street corner just outside the church. The Vietnam War veteran never panhandled or threatened anyone, though he did rave incoherently and urinate on himself.
Three police officers—names abbreviated by newspapers as M.D. Potts, C.E. Williams and J.S. Hardy—bought Riggs a $109 one-way Greyhound bus ticket for Los Angeles and put him aboard. Standifer told the T-U, “I think it’s very, very irresponsible to send someone with mental illness to a place where he doesn’t have any family or anyone to take care of him.”
When the Cable News Network aired the story, Riggs’s family in Indianapolis saw his face for the first time since he’d vanished 17 years before. Coming home to Indiana from the Vietnam War, Riggs had been unable to keep a job. He’d get work, quit without picking up his paycheck, and call home from New Orleans or Texas. Then in 1979, he disappeared without a trace and the Riggs family had no idea where he’d gone until they saw him two decades later on CNN.
Riggs had a son, Marty Young, who was planning to drive out to California to see his father, and Michael Riggs, James’s brother, was trying to decide what to do. “Before he went to the war, we were always together,” his brother said. “After he came back, he was just a different person.”
James said he was “comfortable and warm” there at LAMP, the Los Angeles Men’s Place, an institution for mentally ill homeless men on Skid Row, in the midst of the largest homeless population in North America.
7. To the Bitter End
During the last Christmas Eve service, the sanctuary dark, candles lit, pews full for the occasion, the father-in-law of the director of HabiJax suffered a heart attack. The congregation filed out as Mac played Silent Night on the organ and sirens approached the church. “Well,” Mac told Standifer once they heard the attack wasn’t fatal, “It’s Snyder to the bitter end.”
There was always drama. Sometimes tempers flared. Someone stole the copper flashing from the roof just before a rainstorm and Standifer christened the resultant waters “the Snyder Fountain.”
Perry, the custodian, didn’t tell anyone when he couldn’t locate the baby Jesus for the lifesize nativity set up in the alcove. Standifer didn’t realize he’d substituted an old and battered 18 inch Barbie doll until a child peered into the manger and screamed.
From time to time, people wandered in, the sanctuary being open to everyone, to play the antique grand piano. A homeless man who’d once made a living as a musician came in once to play, sat down and said tragically that his hands wouldn’t remember.
“One time a man came to see me,” Standifer says, “and he said he’d been to the [Immaculate Conception] Catholic church, but they wouldn’t let him in. Then he said he went to First Baptist Church and the guard pulled a gun on him. Then he came down to Snyder and found me. All he wanted to do was talk. He just wanted to talk about how hurt he was by life.”
The General Conference of the United Methodist Church considered selling Snyder’s organ before they sold the church. That trust Charles O. Livingston had set up earlier in the century kept the doors open, but the Council of Bishops wanted to transfer its funds. In the end, the Church sacrificed the church.
8. To End at the Beginning
Good architecture sits not on its site, but of its site. The preposition is important. It makes space into place. Snyder Memorial seems built of the corner of Laura and Monroe Streets downtown, never mind that the site was first swamp. The building remakes the site into stone.
The edifice both edifies and grounds me. I’m bound in communion with the earth the church has remade to rise from. I fly into the scissor trusses and hammer beams of its soaring yellow pine ceilings. This unity is what I want from both a place and a story, to enter the stone and structure of the architecture, to come into its own deep life.
In its afterlife, the old Gothic building has hosted concerts for the Jacksonville Jazz Festival and the One Spark crowdfunding festival. The St. Johns River City Band, a brass band and big band orchestra, owned the church for a few years but the State of Florida refused their application for historic preservation funds. In 2018, Rodney Hurst, now revered as a Civil Rights icon, proposed that the City of Jacksonville, which now owns the church, make it a Jacksonville Civil Rights museum.
Now Snyder Memorial sits and waits, molders as I maunder. Upstairs, the paint of a bright rainbow chips from a mildewed classroom wall. Above all else, a Celtic cross stands at the peak of the limestone parapet and the crenellated corner tower watches over the battered beating heart of town. Last year would have been the church’s 150th birthday; there was nobody to celebrate it. Now this site of this long history of vision awaits new vision to make the end of this story, and this very sentence, a new beginning.